Will Surgery Slow Down (or Speed Up) a Pope Who’s in a Hurry?


VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has often seemed like a pontiff in a hurry.

In his eight-year papacy, he has tirelessly sought to reshape the Roman Catholic Church in his more pastoral image and elevated more than half of the College of Cardinals that will elect his successor. He has opened previously taboo debates about married priests, the role of women in the church, the embrace of gay Catholics, and communion for the divorced and remarried. He has kept an exhausting schedule of travel around the world.

But as Francis, 84, convalesces in a Roman hospital after undergoing major colon surgery, experts are wondering if the first major health challenge of his papacy will slow him down or speed up the reforms he has promised. Until now, he has opened up big questions about the future of the church and its governance but often pulled back from bold action, preferring instead to take the time to build a broader consensus that perhaps avoids division, but also delays real change.

Now, church analysts say, time is clearly of the essence.

“Surely this is a divide in his pontificate, until now he has never stopped,” Carlo Marroni, a Vatican expert for Italy’s financial daily, Il Sole 24 Ore, said. “Now time is pressing.”

It’s not that Francis has ever had any illusions about his own mortality and his small window to enact his vision of a more inclusive church that emphasizes reaching out to the marginalized over laying down church law.

“I know this will last a short time, two or three years, and then to the house of the Father,” he told reporters on the papal plane in 2014. A couple months later, he made reference to Rome’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics. “I won’t be there, eh,” he said with a laugh. In 2015 he imagined himself serving as pope for about another five years.

On Thursday the Vatican released another update about his progress, saying he “spent a quiet day, eating and moving unassisted” but noted that in the evening on Wednesday “he temporarily ran a fever” and that Thursday morning he “underwent routine and microbiological examinations, and a chest and abdomen scan, which proved negative” for any infections.

“He will never be the same,” read a July 7 post in The Seismograph, an influential and highly plugged-in Vatican news site, which argued that all of the Vatican’s efforts to describe him in the past as a “‘Superman’ damages his image” because he will obviously be slowed down by his ailment.

Age and health are often considerations in the selection of popes.

John Paul II was 58 and vigorous when he was elected in 1978. He reigned for 26 years, a period during which he helped bring down Communism and expand the church’s global footprint, but also during which critics say he cracked down on dissent and let sexual abuse fester. Parkinson’s disease ravaged John Paul in the last years of his pontificate, creating sometimes excruciating, but the church argued, palpably human images of suffering and the havoc of age.

One selling point of Benedict XVI in 2005, besides the continuity he offered with the enormously popular John Paul, was the notion that, at 78 and familiar with the running of the church, he would be a place-holder pope. In 2013, at age 85, he became the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign, saying he no longer had the energy to lead the church. And before the conclave, influential cardinals urged electors to pick someone vigorous and dynamic enough to deal with the enormous challenges of the church.

Francis was also 78 at the time of his election, which had led many to count him out as a candidate. But he has clearly not lacked for energy. On a trip back from South Korea in 2014 he openly ruminated, and admired, Benedict’s example of calling it quits, saying the position of pope emeritus had become an institution.

“Why? Because our span of life increases and at a certain age we no longer have the ability to govern well because our body is weary; our health may be good but we don’t have the ability to deal with all the problems of a government like that of the church,” Francis said, adding, “You can ask me: ‘What if one day you don’t feel prepared to go on?’ I would do the same, I would do the same! I will pray hard over it, but I would do the same thing.”

In March 2015, Francis said in an interview with Mexico’s Televisa television channel that he believed he’d continue as pope for a little longer and then retire like Benedict, saying he had a “vague feeling” that “the Lord has placed me here for a short mission, and nothing more.” But, he added, “it is a feeling. I always leave the possibility open.”

And in a 2019 interview for a book about the history of the health of popes, Francis told the author, Nelson Castro, that he envisioned his final days in Rome. “I will be pope, either active or emeritus, and in Rome.”

There is no indication from the Vatican that the end of his pontificate is imminent. And supporters of Francis have argued that he has already done a lot, making concrete progress on issues such as financial transparency, accountability for sexual abuse and empowering local churches to make decisions for themselves. His conservative critics, who hope Francis’ eventual successor will reverse course back toward a more traditional and doctrinaire church, certainly think he has done plenty of harm.

But liberal critics complain that when push has come to shove, Francis has repeatedly flinched in the face of major changes, and that there is much unfinished business for the pope once he is discharged.

“There’s everything left to do,” said Lucetta Scaraffia, a church historian who in 2019 quit her post as director of the Vatican’s women’s magazine. She said that the pope had only nibbled around the margins in his effort to reform the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy that governs the church, that the Vatican’s justice system was a mess, and that when it came to really empowering women in the church, the pope had done next to nothing, punting, for instance, on the issue of allowing women deacons by merely appointing a study commission.

In fact, many of Francis’ supporters were vexed when he set aside a vote by local bishops, whom he usually defers to, to allow married priests in very limited circumstances. He argued the time had not yet come.

But some experts and cardinals have argued that the biggest change Francis has made is the composition of the hierarchy. In a church where personnel is policy, Francis has created more than a thousand bishops on the front lines and in 2019 reached a tipping point by naming more than half of the voters within the College of Cardinals, where a two-thirds majority of those under the age of 80 are required to elect his successor.

The longer Francis’ pontificate lasts, “the more there will be cardinals in the spirit of Pope Francis,” Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg said at the time.

And Francis has continued in that direction, though the political calculus of what cardinals believe, and how they vote, is not always as simple as where they are from or who gave them their red hat. Francis, after all, was elevated to the rank of cardinal in 2001 by John Paul II.

According to Vatican statistics, Francis has elevated 58 percent of the cardinals who would enter a conclave were it held today, with 72 voting cardinals, compared with 39 by Benedict XVI and 13 by Pope John Paul II. The number of Francis’ cardinals will only increase, and those of his predecessors will only shrink, with time.

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and a senior analyst with Religion News Service, has argued that Francis has already revolutionized the College of Cardinals by picking bishops amenable to him, regardless of where they are from, and so passing over conservatives in traditional church powerhouses like Los Angeles, Milan and Philadelphia.

What is clear is that Francis has not seen age or sickness as an excuse to rest in his pastoral mission.

In a message to older people announcing this month’s World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly, Francis called himself “an elderly person, like you” and said that it was important not to stop working in the faith. “I, myself, can tell you that I was called to become the Bishop of Rome when I had reached, so to speak, retirement age,” he said. “And thought I would not be doing anything new.”

Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.



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