Why are we talking about the Pope resigning… again?

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For centuries, even the idea of a Pope resigning was unthinkable. Until Pope Benedict XVI did exactly that in 2012. In the era of Pope Francis, the possibility of a papal resignation is rarely out of the news: “Will he? Won't he? Could he? Should he?”.

On a number of occasions Pope Francis has confirmed he believes the papacy is for life. Yet, because of a new book-length interview, published this month, the topic is again up for grabs. The Pope’s comments in the book are hardly a revelation insofar as he’s already revealed that the Vatican Secretariat of State has letter of resignation signed by him which will allow the cardinals to call a new conclave in the event of him succumbing to a, quote, “serious physical impediment” that wouldn’t allow him to fulfil his duties as Pope.

Revelations or not, it’s that phase “serious physical impediment” that keeps people guessing. These images of Pope Francis at his public General Audience on Wednesday, March 13, show the physical difficulties he confronts just getting out of the car. Add to that the fact that for several weeks now he’s been delegating the reading of his speeches to someone else…

I still have a bit of a cold and so I asked the monsignor to read the catechesis. Pope Francis has been suffering from flu-like symptoms since the end of February, forcing him to cancel several appointments and making it difficult for him to participate in numerous meetings. Whatever his physical ailments, though, his sense of humour is still in excellent health…

I will ask for help to read, because I still have a cold. Excuse me, but he reads better than I do. At 87, when most people of that age are either tending their garden or playing with their grandchildren, Pope Francis is meeting with heads of state or attending public events where he is expected to interact with thousands of people. Something he continues to do, with or without his physical ailments.

Whether or not Pope Francis does choose to resign, the idea of doing so is clearly on his mind. He’s even specified how he’d like to be called: not “Pope emeritus” like his predecessor, Benedict XVI, a title that caused a certain amount of confusion – but “Bishop emeritus of Rome”. Because, in any case, Rome is where he wants to end his days. Just to keep people guessing, some time ago he suggested he might like to retire to one of the houses for elderly priests in the Rome diocese. Most recently, he’s been speaking about St. Mary Major, one of the four papal basilicas of Rome, where he’s also said he wants to be buried.

St. Mary Major has always had a special place in Pope Francis’ heart: he makes a point ofv isiting the Basilica to pray before the Byzantine icon of Our Lady, “Salus populi romani”, every time he leaves for a papal trip abroad, and every time he returns. Fortunately for Pope Francis, the English word “resignation” can be interpreted in two different ways: as the actual act of “resigning” from a job or position – like the papacy… or the grudging acceptance of “something undesirable but inevitable” - like death.

So whenever he talks about “resignation”, who knows which of the two meanings he actually
has is mind?

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