Why there is speculation about the health of Pope Francis

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A year ago, Pope Francis had an operation on his intestines. Knee problems have shaped his everyday life for months. Will he announce his retirement in late summer?

< p>The bishop of Augsburg was the last to be heard. Bertram Meier was a guest of Pope Francis in the Vatican on Friday. He said afterwards to the Catholic News Agency (KNA) that he did not experience the 85-year-old as tired of office. “He was very strong both physically and mentally, he had a great sense of humor and was not tired at all.” The Pope did not use a wheelchair, only his cane.

Now that's his business when employees – and that's what a bishop is – describe their health after meeting their direct superior. An overly distant view is not to be expected. While the Pope may be one of the great spiritual and still one of the moral authorities in the world, he is also at the head of an absolutist system.

The Pope on July 4, 2021 in St. Peter's Square. Hours later he was lying on the OR

But his condition has been an issue for some time. At least since then a year ago –  July 4, 2021 – Reports surprised the Vatican reporters that Francis had undergone an operation on the intestines in a clinic under general anesthesia.

When his good appetite failed

On that summer's day at noon, the Pope prayed out of the window of the Apostolic Palace with thousands of believers in St. Peter's Square, as is customary Sunday after Sunday. At the end he always asked people in Italian “Non dimenticate di pregare per me”/”Please don't forget to pray for me”. The usual “buon pranzo” /”bon appétit” , which is always amusing for the Italians, was missing, which was unusual.

Only hours later, a tweet by the director of the Vatican press room, Matteo Bruni, startled correspondents around the Vatican and believers around the world, commonly referred to as “vaticanisti”. In it he briefly informed about the operation. Bruni relied on reassurance. The intervention was “planned”. Hours later, the information followed that the Pope had responded well. It was about inflammatory spots in the intestinal wall. Nevertheless, journalists then updated the obituaries they had prepared for the head of the church.

The Pope on 11. July 2021: Blessings from the Hospital

After eleven days, Francis returned to the Vatican. Almost two months later, in one of his usual chatty interviews, he made it clear that the intestinal surgery was apparently more serious than initially thought. “A nurse saved my life,” the Argentine pope told a Spanish broadcaster.

One of the oldest popes in history

And now, a year later? The world has known the picture of the Pope in a wheelchair for two months. The scene premiered on May 5th. Persistent complaints in the knee were given as the reason. Francis explained that doctors had forbidden him to stand or walk for long periods of time. Statistically, he has long been one of the ten oldest popes in church history.

Since he took office, Francis has been known for his unconventional demeanor. He was often seen walking to the venue at large Vatican conferences, an old briefcase in hand. His walk seemed more difficult over the years. It's part of old age.

But with the pictures in the wheelchair, the mood of Francis is discussed again. He actually wanted to travel to Lebanon in June – but because of his knee, the plans were put on hold and the visit was officially postponed.

The Pope celebrates Mass with Congolese in St. Peter's Basilica

A visit to South Sudan and Congo was planned for a week. For years he has been aiming for this trip, together with the head of the Anglican Church. It should be a visit to the poorest people in African crisis areas. With those who are so dear to Francis. Even after the first wheelchair pictures, the Vatican published the program of the trip; Congo and South Sudan prepared themselves full of anticipation.

Now the number two of the Vatican travels 

A good three weeks ago, the decision was made not to travel. Vatican spokesman Bruni cited the doctors' urgent advice as the reason “the results of the therapy” should not be affected. Now, instead of the Pope, Vatican number two, Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, is traveling to both countries. And Francis celebrated a colorful mass with Christians from Congo in St. Peter's Basilica.

In the hot Roman summer, things are now becoming quieter for the Pope. As usual, there will be no large general audiences for believers in July. Francis' public appearances are becoming rarer. However, his scheduling is quite original. On Friday he not only met Bishop Meier of Augsburg, but also entrepreneur Elon Musk, one of the richest people in the world. “Honored to have met the pontiff yesterday,” the 51-year-old tweeted the next day. The photo in the tweet shows Musk with a serious look next to the smiling Pope, next to four of Musk's children.

Days earlier, Francis was unable to attend a long-planned meeting with members of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations. Because of acute pain, as it was called. After all, the text of the speech was distributed with the introductory words “Dear older brothers and sisters, shalom!” . An appointment in the papal calendar that was certainly more relevant than the meeting with Musk.

End of July – the Vatican is sticking to these travel plans – the Pope wants to go to Canada. A transatlantic flight, a total of four take-offs and four landings, encounters with indigenous people who have suffered in church institutions.

The appointment of new cardinals in Rome

In a few months, Francis will be in office longer than his predecessor, Pope Benedict. He has put eminently important dates in his calendar for the end of August. On August 27, at an unusual date, he admits 20 new clergy to the so-called College of Cardinals; 16 of the new cardinals are not yet 80 years old, so in the event of a conclave they will be able to vote for Francis' successor. For many years, the ceremonial reception of cardinals has always taken place either at the end of November or at the end of February/beginning of March.

Cardinals in festive red robes

For August 29th and 30th, Francis has called all the cardinals of the universal Church to the Vatican for consultations. It is always said that the reform of the Curia is at stake. The framework of this appointment is also unusual. As young as he was at the start of his pontificate, Francis is planning a helicopter tour to L'Aquila in Abruzzo on August 28, while most of the cardinals of the universal Church are in Rome. There he wants to visit the tomb of Pope Celestine, who resigned from office in 1294 – he is the last pope before Benedict XVI, who chose this step in 2013.

Incidentally, the reform of the curia, which Francis constantly pushed during his years in Rome, stipulates that all clerics in the Vatican should be in office for a maximum of ten years, two terms of office of five years. Christopher Lamb pointed this out in the British “The Tablet” weeks ago. Such a regulation would put an end to the not unusual, long-standing Roman biographies without any connection to an ecclesiastical basis.

Francis will be in office for ten years in 2023

Ten years in office – Francis could celebrate in March 2023. Then he would be 86 years old. Even if all officials resolutely reject any hint of Francis' resignation: Speculations have long been going on as to whether Francis, who is physically ailing, will announce at the end of August 2022 that he will resign sometime in 2023. That would be a hot Roman late summer.

Pope Francis on May 5th in the Vatican Audience Hall

The Pope himself was directly confronted with the rumours. On Monday, in an interview with the Reuters agency, he rejected all speculation about resignation. “It never occurred to me,” he said. And further: “No for the moment, for the moment , no. Really.”

Francis reiterated his often-stated position that he might one day resign rather than serve for life should his health make it impossible for him to lead the Church. When asked when that might be, he said, “We don't know. God will say.” The time may come. Also the time for new speculations.