ROME – Pope Francis has fueled rumors about the future of his pontificate by announcing he will travel to the central Italian city of L’Aquila in August for a feast initiated by Pope Celestine V, one of the few pontiffs to have resigned before the departure of Pope Benedict XVI down in 2013.
Italian and Catholic media have been filled with unsubstantiated speculation that Francis, 85, may be considering following in Benedict’s footsteps, given his increased mobility issues which have required him to use a wheelchair for the month last.
Those rumors gained momentum last week when Francis announced a consistory to create 21 new cardinals scheduled for August 27. Sixteen of these cardinals are under 80 and can vote in a conclave to elect Francis’ successor.
Once they are added to the ranks of church princes, Francis will have stacked the College of Cardinals with 83 of the 132 cardinals of voting age. While there are no guarantees as to how cardinals might vote, the chances of them choosing a successor who shares Francis’ pastoral priorities are growing.
In announcing the Aug. 27 consistory, Francis also announced that he would hold two days of talks the following week to brief the cardinals on his recent apostolic constitution reforming Vatican bureaucracy. The document, which comes into effect Sunday, allows women to lead Vatican offices, imposes term limits on priestly Vatican employees and positions the Holy See as an institution at the service of local churches, rather than the other way around.
Francis was elected pope in 2013 with a mandate to reform the Roman curia. Now that the nine-year project has been rolled out and at least partially implemented, Francis’ main task as pope has, in some ways, been accomplished.
All of this has made Saturday’s otherwise routine announcement of a pastoral visit to L’Aquila carry more speculative weight than it otherwise would.
The timing was remarkable: The Vatican and the rest of Italy are usually on vacation from August to mid-September, with all but essential business closed. The convening of a major consistory in late August to create new cardinals, the gathering of churchmen for two days of talks on the implementation of his reform and the making of a symbolically significant pastoral visit suggest that Francis could have unusual things in mind.
“With today’s news that @Pontifex will be heading to L’Aquila smack in the middle of the August Consistory, everything has become even more intriguing,” tweeted Vatican commentator Robert Mickens, in connection with an essay that he had published in La Croix International on the rumours. swirling around the future of the pontificate.
The Basilica of L’Aquila houses the tomb of Celestine V, a hermit pope who resigned after five months in 1294, overwhelmed by work. In 2009 Benedict visited L’Aquila, which had been devastated by a recent earthquake, and prayed at Celestine’s tomb, leaving her pallium stole there.
No one at the time appreciated the significance of the gesture. But four years later, 85-year-old Benoît would follow in Celestine’s footsteps and resign, saying he no longer had the strength in body and mind to endure the rigors of the papacy.
The Vatican announced on Saturday that Francis would travel to L’Aquila to celebrate Mass on August 28 and open the “holy door” of the basilica housing Celestine’s tomb. The timing coincides with the church in L’Aquila’s celebration of the Feast of Forgiveness, which was created by Celestine in a papal bull.
No pope has been to L’Aquila since to close the annual feast, which celebrates the sacrament of forgiveness so dear to Francis, noted the current archbishop of L’Aquila, Cardinal Giuseppe Petrocchi.
“We hope that all people, especially those who have been harmed by internal conflicts and divisions, can (come) find the path of solidarity and peace,” he said in a statement announcing the visit.
Francis hailed Benedict’s decision to retire as “opening the door” for future popes to do the same, and he originally predicted a short papacy of two to five years for himself.
Nine years later, Francis has shown no signs of retiring and he still has big plans on the horizon.
In addition to upcoming trips this year to Congo, South Sudan, Canada and Kazakhstan, he has planned a major meeting of world bishops in 2023 to discuss the growing decentralization of the Catholic Church, as well as the continued implementation of its reforms.
But Francis was hampered by strained ligaments in his right knee which made walking painful and difficult. He has told friends he does not want to have an operation, reportedly because of his reaction to anesthesia last July when he had 33 centimeters (13 inches) removed from his large intestine.
This week, one of his closest advisers and friends, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, said talk of a papal resignation or the end of Francis’ pontificate was baseless.
“I think it’s optical illusions, brain illusions,” Maradiaga told Religion Digital, a Spanish-language Catholic site.
Christopher Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, noted that most Vatican watchers expect Francis to step down eventually, but not before Benedict’s death. The 95-year-old retired pope is physically frail but still alert and receives occasional visitors to his home in the Vatican gardens.
“There won’t be two former popes floating around,” Bellitto said in an email. Referring to Francis’ planned visit to L’Aquila, he suggested not reading too much into it, noting that Benedict XVI’s gesture in 2009 was missed by almost everyone.
“I don’t remember many stories at the time saying that Benedict’s visit in 2009 made us think he was going to resign,” he said, suggesting that Francis’ pastoral visit to the ‘Aquila could be just that: a pastoral visit.