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When Pope Francis comes of age

  • 16 December 2021
Pope Francis turns eighty-five this week. His pontificate has seen him emerge from obscurity in Argentine Church politics to become, late in life, a global cultural icon and one of the most popular popes in living memory. Over the past nine years he has invigorated the Church and, according to papal biographer Austen Ivereigh, has made the papacy ‘much more human, much more accessible, much less remote’.

Francis has garnered global admiration for his denial of the luxuries associated with the papal office: for living in the simple Casa Santa Marta rather than the apostolic palace, for his hands-on work with homeless communities, and for his participation in the annual tradition of washing prisoners’ feet on Holy Thursday.

And yet now that Francis is eighty-five a particular question must be present in the minds of his advisors and his ecclesiastical adversaries. Eighty-five is the age at which his predecessor, Benedict XVI, announced his resignation on that dramatic day in February 2013.

Francis is far less frail than his predecessor was at the same age and no one doubts the acuity of his mental faculties. And despite having his share of critics, opinion polls suggest he is one of the most popular world leaders. At present, during one of the more difficult times in Church history, he enjoys the support of the vast majority of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics. As it is, very few would want Francis to ever resign. But Benedict’s resignation laid down a marker for future bishops of Rome.

Seventy-five for bishops, eighty for cardinals, eighty-five for the pontiff: there is a certain logic to this scheme of superannuation which Benedict and his predecessors have precipitated.

So what will Francis do? Will he follow Benedict in resigning and thus set a yet more powerful precedent for his successor and his successor’s successors? Or will he continue on, as is his right as pope to do so, leaving ultimate responsibility for closing out his pontificate in the hands of God? 

Benedict XVI’s resignation came as a shock because papal resignations are rare. As Paul VI said, ‘paternity cannot be resigned’. Only a handful of other popes in history have resigned and in few of those cases has their renunciation of power been entirely voluntary.

'Francis has already hinted that he may also take on ‘emeritus’ in the future, which means he is certainly considering the issues at stake for his, and the Church’s, future.'

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