ROME -- Pope Francis fueled rumors about his future pontificate when he announced that he would visit L'Aquila, a central Italian city in August to celebrate a feast started by Pope Celestine V. Celestine V was one of few pontiffs to resign before Pope Benedict XVI stepped aside in 2013.
Unsourced speculation has been swirling in Italian and Catholic media about whether Francis, 85, might plan to follow Benedict's lead. This is despite his mobility issues that have made him use a wheelchair for the past month.
These rumors were confirmed last week by Francis, who announced that a conclave to create 21 new cardinals was scheduled for August 27. Sixteen of these cardinals are younger than 80 years old and can vote in a conclave that will elect Francis' successor.
Francis will have stacked his College of Cardinals with 83 of 132 voting-age cardinals once they are added to their ranks as princes of Christ's church. Although it is impossible to predict how cardinals will vote, there are greater chances they will choose a successor who shares Francis’ pastoral priorities.
Francis announced the Aug. 27 convent and also said he would host two days' talks to inform the cardinals of his recent apostolic constitution reforming Vatican bureaucracy. The document, which takes effect Sunday, allows women in Vatican offices to lead, and imposes term limits for priestly Vatican employees. It also positions the Holy See as an institution at service of local churches rather than vice versa.
Francis was elected pope on the mandate to reform Rome's Curia. Francis' primary task as pope is in some ways accomplished now that the nine-year-old project has been completed and at least partially implemented.
All of these factors made Saturday's routine announcement of L'Aquila's pastoral visit more speculative than it otherwise might have.
It was notable for the timing: In August and September, the Vatican and other parts of Italy are typically on vacation with no business except essential. Francis may have had some out-of-the ordinary business in mind by calling a major conclave in August to create new cardinals. It brought together churchmen for two days' talks about implementing his reform, and made a symbolically significant pastoral visit.
"Today's news that @Pontifex will travel to L'Aquila during the August consistory makes it even more fascinating," tweeted Robert Mickens, a Vatican commentator. He linked to an essay he published in La Croix International on the rumors surrounding the future pontificate.
The Basilica of L'Aquila houses the tombs of Celestine V and Veronica, who were both hermit popes and resigned in 1294 after being overwhelmed by their job. Benedict visited L'Aquila in 2009 after it had been destroyed by an earthquake. He prayed at Celestine's grave and left his pallium stole there.
The significance of this gesture was not appreciated at the time. Four years later, the 85 year-old Benedict would follow Celestine's lead and resign. He said he didn't have the strength of mind and body to continue the rigors associated with the papacy.
Pope Francis announced Saturday that he would visit L'Aquila on Aug. 28 to celebrate Mass and open the "Holy Door," which is the basilica housing Celestine's grave. This timing coincides perfectly with L'Aquila's celebration of Feast of Forgiveness. Celestine created it in a papal Bull.
Since closing out the annual feast in L'Aquila (which celebrates the sacrament forgiveness so dearly to Francis), no pope has ever visited L'Aquila. According to Cardinal Giuseppe Petrocchi, the archbishop of L'Aquila.
He said that he hoped all people, particularly those who are harmed by conflict and internal divisions might (come), and find the way of solidarity and peace in a statement that was released to announce the visit.
Francis has praised Benedict’s retirement as "opening up the door" for future popes. He had originally predicted that Benedict would only be able to serve a brief papacy of between two and five years.
Francis is still going strong nine years later.
He has also planned upcoming trips to South Sudan, Canada, and Congo this year. In 2023, a major meeting will be held with the world's bishops for a discussion on the decentralization of Catholic Churches, as well as his continued implementation of his reforms.
Francis is now unable to walk due to the strains in his right knee. Friends have told him that he does not want to go under anesthesia. He had 33 cm (13 inches) removed from his large intestine last July.
Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga was one of Francis' closest friends and advisers. He said this week that talk of a papal resignation, or the end to Francis' pontificate, was not based.
Maradiaga, a Spanish-language Catholic website, stated that she believes these are optical illusions and cerebral illusions.
Christopher Bellitto, a Kean University, Union, New Jersey church historian, stated that while most Vatican watchers anticipate Francis will eventually resign but not before Benedict's death, it is something that most Vatican observers do not believe to be true. The retired pope, who is 95 years old, is still physically frail and receives occasional visitors at his Vatican Gardens home.
Bellitto wrote in an email that "He's going to not have two former popes floating about." He suggested that people not read too much into Francis' planned visit at L'Aquila.
"I don't remember a lot stories at that time saying that Benedict's 2009 visit made us believe he was going to resign," he stated, suggesting that Francis' pastoral trip to l'Aquila may have been just that: a pastoral tour.