Pope Francis has cancelled his trip to DR Congo and South Sudan due to ongoing problems with his knee, a move which raises questions about his long term mobility along with whether he will be able to make foreign visits in the future.
The 85-year-old Roman Pontiff was due to travel to the African countries from 2-7 July and in South Sudan was to be joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Church of Scotland Moderator Jim Wallace to support reconciliation efforts in the war-torn country. The South Sudan leg of the visit was to be an historic ecumenical pilgrimage given that a Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury have never undertaken a joint visit.
A Vatican statement said today that “with regret” and “at the request of his doctors” the Pope has been forced to postpone the trip to “a later date to be determined”. A Vatican spokesman explained that while therapy to his knee had produced some improvements, doctors had advised Francis that this could be lost if he carried out the trip.
Archbishop Welby said: “I am praying for my dear brother Pope Francis and share his regret that our visit to South Sudan with the Church of Scotland Moderator is postponed. I continue to pray for the people of South Sudan in their challenges and hopes for peace, and look forward to making this historic visit at a later date.”
A Lambeth Palace spokesperson added: “We are in touch with the Episcopal Church of South Sudan to discuss next steps that will encourage peace for the people of South Sudan.”
The Pope was first pictured using a wheelchair on 5 May after the pain in his right knee made walking and standing extremely difficult. He has, however, ruled out having surgery on his knee as it would involve months of recovery and physical therapy. “Before having surgery, I resign,” he told the Italian bishops recently.
Francis is also due to visit Canada from 24-30 July, although a detailed programme has yet to be released for that trip. When asked by journalists, the Vatican's spokesman declined to offer further details other than Francis’ commitments had been confirmed. The Africa trip is not the first the Pope has cancelled in recent months. Francis had been due to go to Lebanon in the middle of June, and to Glasgow, UK last October.
The latest decision about South Sudan is likely to fuel speculation about the future of the Francis pontificate.
At the end of May, the Pope announced he was gathering cardinals from across the world to Rome for discussions on Church reforms at the end of August, a time when many people in the Vatican and Italy are on holiday. The Pope has also announced he will create 21 cardinals on 27 August, just before this summit.
Papal resignation speculation went into overdrive after the Vatican said the Pope would go to L’Aquila on 28 August and say Mass in front of the basilica where Pope Celestine V is buried. He is the thirteenth-century monk, hermit, pope and saint who resigned from the papacy a few months after being elected. It was in front of his tomb that Benedict XVI laid down one of the symbols of his office (the pallium) four years before his own resignation in February 2013.
The L’Aquila trip has been in preparation for some time and the main purpose is to celebrate a festival of forgiveness. While a papal resignation may not be imminent, some in the Vatican believe the Pope’s recent moves show he is making preparations during an uncertain period for the Church. The Jesuit Pope is a strategic thinker who makes big decisions on his own and free from outside pressures.
It is often argued that Francis will stay in post while Benedict XVI, 95, is still alive and that he wants to stay in post until the landmark synod of bishops meeting in 2023 which will devise strategies for a more synodal church. The global synod process launched by the Pope is the most ambitious attempt at Church renewal since the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, and is likely to be one of the lasting legacies of his pontificate.
Major reform efforts in the Church are known to outlive one papacy. Pope John XXII died in 1963 nine months after opening Vatican II and it was left to his successor, Pope Paul VI, to guide the council to a conclusion and begin implementing its reforms.