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ROME – Friday’s announcement that Pope Francis has pulled the plug on his July 2-7 trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan is the latest health-related setback for the 85-year-old pontiff, who recently has been constrained to use a wheelchair in both public and private settings.
While the Vatican has said repeatedly that the pontiff’s issues are due to osteoarthritis in the right knee, and that he’s otherwise fine, those assurances have done little to prevent the ever-active Roman rumor mill from going into overdrive.
As the speculation heats up, it’s probably worthwhile to lay out what we actually know, as well as to identify looming benchmark moments that may tell us more.
What We Know
To begin with, it seems likely Pope Francis will be forced to opt out of the traditional Corpus Domini procession this coming Thursday, June 16, though the Vatican hasn’t officially said anything yet. The procession didn’t take place the last couple of years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s back this time.
Beyond that, Francis has another major international trip set for Canada July 24-30, which is keenly anticipated because of expectations among Indigenous peoples that Francis will build on his recent apology for abuses suffered at church-run residential schools.
The Canadian bishops released a statement on Friday saying they’re still hoping the pontiff can make it. They said they’re working with the Vatican to “ensure his participation at events is for a limited period of time,” meaning about an hour each, so he doesn’t become over-extended.
Probably the biggest variable is whether the pope continues to insist on treating his knee condition largely with ice packs, painkillers, injections and simple rest, or whether he agrees to undergo surgery. To date Francis has resisted that idea, reportedly because of a negative reaction to anesthesia during his colon surgery last summer; in a recent session with Italian bishops, Francis joked that he’d rather quit than have another operation.
However, medical experts say the surgery required to address the pope’s knee condition would be much less complicated than the colon procedure. Among other things, it would require only a local anesthetic, and recovery time is said to be fairly brief.
Should the pontiff elect to have the surgery soon, it’s conceivable he could still make the trip to Canada, and arguably be in better condition to do so. Otherwise, it likely will depend on how he’s feeling in the immediate run-up to the scheduled dates.
One other point: Despite the obvious pain Francis is in, his condition does not seem to have compromised his ability to govern. Yesterday, in tandem with the announcement of the cancellation of the Africa trip, Francis met with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to discuss the Ukraine crisis, gave a talk to the Federation of Catholic Family Associations in which he once again lamented a “demographic winter” in Europe, and also appointed a new bishop in Phoenix more in sync with his progressive vision.
If Francis is forced to postpone the Canada outing, that would be one major indication that the pontiff’s condition is not improving. If he steadfastly refuses to have surgery, it could signal the beginning of a new phase in which the pope is once again a “prisoner of the Vatican,” not in this instance due to politics, as in the 19th century and the collapse of the Papal States, but rather because of limited personal mobility.
Beyond that, the next obvious looming benchmark will come in late August, when Pope Francis is scheduled to create 21 new cardinals on Aug. 27, and then preside over two days of meetings with all the cardinals of the world Aug. 29-30.
In between, he’s planning a day trip Aug. 28 to L’Aquila in central Italy, about 75 miles northeast of Rome, where he will visit the tomb of Pope Celestine V, the last pope to voluntarily resign the office prior to Benedict XVI. Famously, Benedict XVI visited L’Aquila in 2009 and laid his papal stole on Celestine’s tomb, which, with the benefit of hindsight, now seems a sort of foreshadowing of his decision to step down.
That background has set off considerable speculation that Francis may use his meeting with cardinals to announce his own resignation – and, of course, with a pope of surprises, anything is possible. Before getting carried away, however, three points should be made.
First, Francis is going to L’Aquila to open an annual jubilee of forgiveness known as the “Celestinian Pardon,” and for a pope whose motto literally is mercy, that’s no small thing.
Second, he’s also going to bring comfort to the victims of a devastating 2009 earthquake that claimed the lives of 309 people, and given Francis’s legendary concern for suffering, that’s reason enough for the trip, too.
Third, after Francis’s surgery last summer, he denied having considered resignation in an interview with Spanish radio.
“I don’t know where they got the idea last week that I was about to resign!” he said. “They say it caused a sensation, when it never even entered my mind.”
It’s also aroused attention that Francis has scheduled his consistory for August, which is an unusual moment. Aside from the fact that August is generally vacation time in Rome, by tradition consistories are held on one of only two dates: Feb. 22, the Feast of the Chair of Peter, or June 29, the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.
However, this will be Francis’s eighth consistory, and on three previous occasions he’s held the event on a different date. As a result, there doesn’t have to be anything revelatory in the fact that he’s chosen August this time around – and recall that, from the beginning, Francis has never taken the customary papal summer break in Castel Gandolfo but has preferred to stay on the job in Rome.
All that, obviously, suggests a note of caution before leaping to conclusions.
By the end of the summer, therefore, we should know more about two points: First, if Pope Francis is going to be able to travel in the future, at least in terms of longer international journeys; and second, if he has any intention of resigning, at least in the short term.
As they say in the TV business, “Stay tuned!”
Follow John L. Allen Jr. on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr