There’s been a lot of chatter about Pope Francis getting ready to resign, but I’m not buying it — not yet — nor am I convinced either he or his pontificate is running on empty. In fact, most of the evidence, such as it is, adduced in support of such conjectures, may very well point to the opposite conclusion.
It is apparent that Roman hands are preparing for the interregnum and eventual conclave for the election of Pope Francis’s successor. That’s par for the course in the Eternal City, where the maxim is: Morto un papa, se ne fa ‘n’artro (literally, “When one pope dies, another is made.”). The fact is, popes get old and popes get sick. They never get any younger and sometimes they stay sick for a long time.
Though Pope Francis is not the picture of health, there’s really no telling how sick he is. He could recover from any or all of the things known to be ailing him, or at least rally. He has a pretty full dance card, too, even apart from the maxi-consistory planned for late August. One of the trips on the schedule is to L’Aquila, the central Italian town devastated by an earthquake in 2009 and still struggling to recover. L’Aquila is also famous for being the resting place of Pietro Angelerio — Pope St. Celestine V, also styled St. Peter Celestine — who reigned only five months before resigning the office in hope of returning to his previous life as a hermit.
Pope Benedict XVI left his pallium on St. Peter Celestine’s sarcophagos when he visited the quake-stricken community in 2009, a gesture subsequently interpreted as an indication Benedict was already then considering resignation as an option. (The pallium is the white woolen garment worn like a scarf around the shoulders of a metropolitan archbishop to signify his office.) Pope Francis’s plan to visit the place on August 28th — the day after he creates a score of new cardinals — is the kind of thing as is bound to gin up the rumor mill.
What if he just goes and greets the people of L’Aquila to offer them moral and spiritual support and bring their ongoing trials into the light of the cameras that are bound to follow him? Will that be a “gesture” indicating he doesn’t intend to resign? It would be just like him — “[H]im all over!” as Bolt’s Everyman-Matthew the Manservant, says of Thomas More at one point in A Man for All Seasons — to let the excitement and speculation build, even to give several indications in one direction, and then to do the other thing.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t preparations underway — at least ufficiosi, as the Romans say — in the form of informal conversations about what the Church needs and doesn’t from the next guy, what sort of profile he ought to have and what sort he needs not to have, and even who might be the plausible candidates. All of that is normale amministrazione truth be told, though it is pretty much universally recognized that the next interregnum and conclave — whenever they come — will be complicated and likely messy affairs. The electors don’t really know each other.
Francis’s pontificate has been turbulent. The Church is wrestling — perhaps less assiduously than anyone would like — with multiple and converging crises. The Vatican’s finances are in shambles. The ecclesiastical leadership culture is broken.
Picking a successor will not be easy, nor will it be the work of a day.
When I was a kid, I watched the British sci-fi show, Terrahawks (a creation of Gerry Anderson and Christopher Burr, the guys who brought the world Thunderbirds, which in turn inspired the immortal 2004 masterpiece, Team America: World Police). The premise of the mid-’80s animated puppet show is that, in the year 2020, an elite team of heroes defend Earth from alien invaders. In the very first episode of the series, the Terrahawks’ team leader responds to a query regarding what he expects from the imminent encounter with the alien flagship with the words, “I expect the unexpected.”
That’s sound advice whenever one is tempted to prognostication regarding the next moves of a man who preaches the “God of surprises” and exercises his role as God’s vicar by being the “pope of surprises” as well. It is also practically a given that there are no clear front-runners for the succession, much less any heir apparent. The Romans have another saying: Chi entra ner conclave papa, ne risorte cardinale (Roman dialect for “He, who goes into the conclave a pope, comes out a cardinal.”). Only, no one is going in pope this time. Expect the unexpected, indeed.
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