Written by NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press
ROME (AP) – Pope Francis has added fuel to rumors about the future of his pontificate by announcing he will visit the central Italian city of L’Aquila in August at a banquet hosted by Pope Celestine V, one of the few popes to resign before the pope. Benedict XVI resigned in 2013.
Italian and Catholic media are full of speculation without sources that 85-year-old Francis may intend to follow in Benedict’s footsteps, given his increased mobility problems that have forced him to use a wheelchair for the past month.
These rumors spread last week when Francis announced the consistory for the establishment of 21 new cardinals, scheduled for August 27. Sixteen of these cardinals are under the age of 80 and are entitled to vote at the conclave to elect Francis’ successor.
When they are added to the ranks of ecclesiastical princes, Francis will unite the College of Cardinals with 83 of the 132 cardinals of electoral age. Although there is no guarantee that the cardinals will vote, the chances of choosing a successor who shares Francis’ pastoral priorities are growing.
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Announcing the consistory on August 27, Francis also announced that he would host two days of talks next week to brief the cardinals on his recent apostolic constitution, which reformes the Vatican bureaucracy. This document, which takes effect on Sunday, allows women to run Vatican offices, imposes mandate restrictions on Vatican clergy and positions the Holy See as an institution in the service of local churches and not 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 carried out and at least partially implemented, Francis’ main task as pope has been accomplished in some way.
Because of all this, Saturday’s otherwise routine announcement of a pastoral visit to L’Aquila carried more speculative weight than it would have otherwise.
Time was of the essence: The Vatican and the rest of Italy are usually on holiday from August to mid-September, all but essential business closed. The convening of a grand consistory at the end of August to establish new cardinals, gather churchmen for two days of talks on implementing his reform and a symbolically important pastoral visit suggests that Francis may have unusual business in mind.
“With today’s news that @Pontifex will go to L’Aquila right in the middle of the August consistory, everything has become even more intriguing,” tweeted Vatican commentator Robert Mickens, linking to an essay he published in La Croix International about the rumors. revolves around the future of the pontificate.
The Basilica of L’Aquila hosts the tomb of Celestine V, the hermit pope, who resigned after five months in 1294, overburdened with service. In 2009, Benedict visited L’Aquila, devastated by a recent earthquake, and prayed at Celestine’s tomb, leaving a stolen pallium on it.
At the time, no one appreciated the significance of this gesture. But four years later, 85-year-old Benedict followed in Celestine’s footsteps and resigned, saying he no longer had the strength of body and spirit to continue the austerity of the papacy.
The Vatican announced on Saturday that Francis will visit L’Aquila to celebrate Mass on August 28 and open the “holy door” in the basilica where Celestine’s tomb is. The time coincides with the celebration of the Feast of Forgiveness in the Church of L’Aquila, created by Celestine in the Papal Bull.
Since then, no pope has traveled to L’Aquila to conclude the annual feast that celebrates Francis, such an expensive sacrament of forgiveness, the current Archbishop of L’Aquila, Cardinal Giuseppe Petrocchi, warned.
“We hope that all people, especially those affected by conflicts and internal divisions, can (come) and find the path of solidarity and peace,” he said in a statement announcing the visit.
Francis praised Benedict’s decision to retire as “opening the door” to future popes to do the same, and originally announced to himself a short papacy of two to five years.
Nine years later, Francis has shown no signs of wanting to retire, and big projects are still on his horizon.
In addition to this year’s upcoming trips to Congo, South Sudan, Canada and Kazakhstan, he has scheduled a major meeting of world bishops for 2023 to discuss the growing decentralization of the Catholic Church, as well as further implementation of its reforms.
But Francis was bathing because of the tight ligaments in his right knee that made walking painful and difficult. He told friends he did not want to have surgery, presumably because of his reaction to anesthesia last July, when they removed 33 inches (13 inches) of his colon.
This week, one of his closest advisers and friends, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, said the speech about the papal resignation or the end of Francis ’pontificate was unfounded.
“I think these are optical illusions, brain illusions,” Maradiaga told Religion Digital, a Spanish Catholic site.
Christopher Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, noted that most Vatican observers expect Francis to resign over time, but not before Benedict dies. The 95-year-old retired pope is physically weak but still attentive and receives occasional visitors to his home in the Vatican Gardens.
“He won’t have two former popes floating around,” Bellitto said in an email. Regarding Francis’ planned visit to L’Aquila, he suggested not reading too much about it, noting that Benedict’s gesture in 2009 was missed by almost everyone.
“I don’t remember many stories that would have said at the time that Benedict’s visit in 2009 would have made him think he would resign,” he said, suggesting that Francis ’pastoral visit to l’Aquila might be just that: a pastoral visit.
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