Pope sparks resignation rumors after postponing trip to Africa and holding unusual cardinal’s meeting

Pope Francis has fueled speculation he may step down after postponing a trip to Africa and announcing an unusual meeting of cardinals.

Hampered by knee pain and forced to use a wheelchair in recent weeks, the 85-year-old pontiff last week postponed a July trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

He also announced an unusual move to hold a consistory to appoint new cardinals during a month-long Vatican vacation and held meetings to ensure his reforms remain intact.

Pope Francis (pictured yesterday) has fueled speculation he could step down after postponing a trip to Africa and announcing an unusual meeting of cardinals

The extraordinary consistory will be held on August 27, a slow summer month at the Catholic headquarters, to create 21 new cardinals – 16 of whom will be under 80, thus eligible to elect his successor at a future conclave.

Since becoming pope in 2013, the Argentine pontiff has created 83 cardinals in an effort to shape the future of the Catholic Church, in part to counter Europe’s historically dominant influence and to reflect its values.

On August 28, Francis will then travel to L’Aquila and the tomb of Celestine V – the first pope to resign from the papacy, in the 13th century.

He then joins the world’s cardinals – many of whom are meeting their peers for the first time – in two days of discussions on the reform of the Roman Curia, which Francis announced in March with the unveiling of a new constitution.

Francis’ reshuffle of the Roman Curia attempts to bring the Church back to its pastoral roots, allows lay Catholics to run Vatican departments, and creates a dicastery specifically for charitable works, among other reforms.

These moves sparked intense speculation about his plans for the future, including the most radical – that he planned to quit.

The resignation of a pope was once almost unthinkable until Benedict XVI resigned his rule in 2013, citing his declining physical and mental health.

In 2014, a year after being elected to replace Benedict, Francis himself told reporters that if his health got in the way of his duties as pope, he would also consider stepping down.

Francis previously told reporters his health prevented him from performing his duties as pope he would consider stepping down (pictured yesterday)

Francis previously told reporters his health prevented him from performing his duties as pope he would consider stepping down (pictured yesterday)

“He (Benedict) opened a door, the door to retired popes,” the pontiff said then.

More recently, in May, as various Italian media reported, Francis joked about his knee during a closed meeting with bishops: “Rather than operate, I will resign.”

But Vatican insiders do not yet believe that Francis is about to hand over the papal keys.

A source told AFP: “In the pope’s entourage, the majority of people do not really believe in the possibility of a resignation.”

Rumors within the insular Roman Curia – the powerful governing body of the Catholic Church – are not new and are often fueled by interested people, Italian Vatican expert Marco Politi said.

“These rumors are encouraged by opponents of the pope who are just asking for Francis to leave,” he told AFP.

A trip to Canada in late July is still on the pontiff’s schedule, and the pope continues to receive knee injections and physiotherapy, according to the Vatican.

As a child, Francis had one of his lungs partially removed. Today, in addition to his knee problem, he suffers from recurrent sciatic nerve pain.

Resignation rumors also erupted last year after Francis underwent colon surgery, prompting him to tell a Spanish radio station the idea “didn’t even cross my mind”.

Politi said of the latest resignation rumors: “At this point it’s about being realistic and not alarmist.”

He said it was ‘hard to imagine’ Francis would step down as the Synod of Bishops – a meaningful initiative for Francis that aims to study how the Church moves forward in a more inclusive way – is underway and set to conclude in 2023.

Alberto Melloni, professor of Christianity and secretary of the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Sciences in Bologna, told AFP that “absurd” conjectures had been made about the pope’s health and his intentions.

“These are things about which there is a desire to understand, to speculate, but there is little to say,” he said.

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