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Pope Francis fuels new speculation about the future of the pontificate

ROME – Pope Francis fueled rumors about the future of his pontificate by announcing that he would visit the central Italian city of L’Aquila in August for a festival initiated by Pope Celestine V, one of the few popes to stand before stepping down resigned from Pope Benedict XVI in 2013.

Italian and Catholic media have been awash with unsourced speculation that 85-year-old Francis plans to follow in Benedict’s footsteps amid mounting mobility issues that have forced him to use a wheelchair over the past month.

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 the age of 80 and eligible to vote in a conclave to elect Francis’ successor.

Once inducted into the ranks of the princes of the Church, Francis will have filled the College of Cardinals with 83 of the 132 cardinals eligible to vote. While there are no guarantees as to how the cardinals will vote, the odds that they will find a successor who shares Francis’ pastoral priorities are increasing.

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In announcing the consistory on August 27, Francis also announced that he would hold two days of talks over the following week to brief cardinals on his recent apostolic constitution to reform the Vatican bureaucracy. This document, which goes into effect Sunday, allows women to head Vatican offices, establishes term limits for 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 is somewhat accomplished.

All of this meant that Saturday’s otherwise routine announcement of a pastoral visit to L’Aquila carried more speculative weight than it might otherwise have had.

The timing was remarkable: the Vatican and the rest of Italy are usually on holiday from August to mid-September, with all but essential businesses closed. The convening of a grand consistory in late August to appoint new cardinals, the gathering of churchmen for two days of talks to implement his reform, and a symbolic pastoral visit suggest that Francis has extraordinary business in mind.

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“Things got even more intriguing with today’s news that @Pontifex will be going to L’Aquila right in the middle of the August Consistory,” Vatican commentator Robert Mickens tweeted, linking to an essay he wrote in La Croix Internationally about the rumors swirling around the future of the pontificate.

The basilica at L’Aquila houses the tomb of Celestine V, a hermit pope who resigned in 1294 after five months, overwhelmed by work. In 2009, Benedict visited L’Aquila, recently devastated by an earthquake, and prayed at Celestine’s tomb, leaving his pallium stole on it.

No one appreciated the significance of this gesture at the time. But four years later, 85-year-old Benedict would follow in Celestine’s footsteps and resign because he no longer had the strength of body and mind to continue the austerity of the papacy.

The Vatican announced Saturday that Francis would visit L’Aquila to celebrate Mass on August 28 and open the “Holy Door” at the basilica that houses Celestine’s tomb. The timing coincides with the celebration of the Feast of Forgiveness in the Church of L’Aquila, created by Celestine in a papal bull.

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No pope has since traveled to L’Aquila to close the annual festival celebrating 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 harmed by conflict and internal divisions, will (come) and find the path of solidarity and peace,” he said in a statement announcing the visit.

Francis has hailed Benedict’s decision to retire as “opening the door” for future popes to do the same, and originally predicted a short papacy of two to five years for himself.

Nine years later, Francis has shown no sign of wanting to step down and he still has big projects on the horizon.

In addition to upcoming trips this year to Congo, South Sudan, Canada and Kazakhstan, he has scheduled a major meeting of the world’s bishops for 2023 to debate the increasing decentralization of the Catholic Church and the further implementation of his reforms.

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But Francis was handicapped by strained ligaments in his right knee, which have made walking painful and difficult. He has told friends he does not want to have surgery, allegedly because of his reaction to anesthesia last July when 33 centimeters (13 inches) of his colon were removed.

This week, one of his closest advisers and friends, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, said talk of the Pope resigning or the end of Francis’ pontificate was unfounded.

“I think these are optical illusions, cerebral illusions,” Maradiaga told Religion Digital, a Spanish-language Catholic website.

Christopher Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, noted that most Vatican observers expect Francis to resign at some point, but not before Benedict dies. The 95-year-old retired pope is physically frail but still awake and occasionally receives visitors at his home in the Vatican Gardens.

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“He’s not going to have two former popes floating around,” Bellitto said in an email. Regarding Francis’ planned visit to L’Aquila, he suggested not reading too much into it, noting that Benedict’s gesture in 2009 was missed by almost everyone.

“I don’t recall many stories from the time that said Benedict’s visit in 2009 led us to believe he was resigning,” he said, suggesting that Francis’ pastoral visit to L’Aquila could be just that : a pastoral visit .

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https://www.local10.com/news/world/2022/06/05/pope-francis-fuels-new-speculation-on-future-of-pontificate/ Pope Francis fuels new speculation about the future of the pontificate

Sarah Y. Kim

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