Pope Francis has scrapped a trip to Africa owing to an ongoing problem with his knee, raising further scrutiny about the 85-year-old pontiff’s health.
The Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni said the planned visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan in early July had been cancelled “at the request of his doctors in order not to jeopardise the results of the therapy that he is undergoing for his knee” and would be rescheduled to a later date.
Francis, who appeared in public using a wheelchair for the first time in early May, has cancelled several engagements since having a minor operation to treat knee pain. The Vatican has not revealed exactly what the problem is, but Francis told Corriere della Sera last month he needed a minor “intervention with infiltration” due to a strained ligament.
The pope has a six-day trip to Canada planned from 24 July, and another to Kazakhstan in September.
Rumours continue to circulate that Francis could follow in the footsteps of his predecessor Benedict XVI and resign from his post. The talk grew after he announced he would travel to the Abruzzo town of L’Aquila in late August to attend a feast that was initiated by a 13th-century pope who himself resigned after just five months in the job.
The speculation appears to have started during a private meeting with bishops in May, during which the pope made a joke in reference to his knee. “It would be better to resign than to be operated on,” he reportedly said.
Francis had intestinal surgery last summer. He is known to have suffered from sciatica, but until now he has never cancelled an official trip due to poor health. In an interview with an Argentinian journalist, Nelson Castro, last year, he said he had never had to “cancel or limit anything” and had never struggled with fatigue or shortness of breath. When asked how he imagined his death, he replied: “As pope, in office or emeritus. And here in Rome, I’m not going back to Argentina.”
At the start of his papacy in 2013, Francis said he would like to see the resignation of a pope becoming normal, and in 2015 he said he had a feeling that his pontificate would be brief, describing Benedict’s decision to quit as “courageous”. However, most commentators believe it is unlikely Francis will resign while Benedict is alive.