17 June 2022, The Tablet

Pope Francis – will he stay or will he go?

As Pope Francis cancels his July trip to Africa, Chris Lamb looks at what this might signify.

Pope Francis – will he stay or will he go?

Pope Francis was in fine spirits at his general audience on Wednesday.
CNS photo/Yara Nardi, Reuters

Might Pope Francis resign? Speculation about this question has been bubbling away in Rome and has been fuelled further by Francis’s decision to cancel his July trip to Africa

There are two schools of thought. The first considers that Francis will continue in office until “the end”, in other words, that he is looking to the jubilee year of 2025 and will not resign while Benedict XVI is still alive.

During the General Audience on 15 June, the 85-year-old Pope, reflecting on the contribution the elderly can make to society, said: “Even in old age one can, or rather one must serve the community. It is good for the elderly to cultivate the responsibility to serve, overcoming the temptation to stand aside.”

The view that the Pope will carry on is one held both by some of the Pope’s closest supporters and by some of his most fervent opponents. But although it may have been true in the past that Francis intended to stay in post as long as Benedict was alive, that is no longer set in stone.

The second school of thought considers a resignation more likely, and that the Pope is “creating the space” in which this might happen. His move to call a consistory to create new cardinals during the holiday month of August is highly unusual, and he is continuing to pack in a huge number of meetings. One Vatican official said that the Pope has an “awareness that it is an uncertain time for the Church” and could be planning accordingly. 

Francis wants to ensure that his reforms are irreversible. Another Church source told The Tablet that the opening of the global synod process  “last, great prophetic act of his pontificate”.

For the Jesuit Pope, having the freedom to discern the way forward is vital. It could appeal to him to announce his resignation several months in advance. This would allow for a longer discernment phase ahead of a conclave, rather than the polarised debate that could ensue if there were just a few days of discussions solely between cardinals. Francis sees synodality – the mutual listening between lay people and priests and bishops, guided by the Holy Spirit – operating at every level of the Church’s life.

But what does this mean for a conclave? Could the Pope try to find ways to include the People of God in the process ahead of the cardinals meeting and voting on his successor? Is there a way of making a link between the synodal pathway and the conclave that will decide the next successor of St Peter? 

Major reforms in the Church normally outlast a single pontificate. John XXIII died nine months after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, leaving Paul VI to steer it to a conclusion. If Francis wanted to ensure the synod will not be dismissed in the future as his personal project, then handing it over to a successor as a going concern would make sense. 

The Pope’s mobility issues, caused by problems in his right knee, have put a question mark over all his foreign travel plans. He has ruled out surgery, which could put him out of action for several months. Things are coming to a head. In March 2023, the Pope will have completed a decade in office. The new constitution for the Roman Curia states that clerics and religious working in the Vatican should serve a maximum of two five-year terms.

If he were to stand down it would establish papal resignations as a tradition rather than an anomaly. Five years ago, in a homily, Francis asked for prayers “for parish priests, for bishops, for the Pope” to “learn to say their farewells.” 




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