During Pope Benedict XVI's intense four-day visit to Germany last week, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi expressed his astonishment at how well the Pope had coped with such a grueling schedule.
“The Pope is doing extraordinarily well,” he told reporters on the final day. “This has been pleasing to see for us, for the people and for him too.”
So it came as a surprise when the Italian press reported speculation the same day saying the Pope may resign when he turns 85 next April.
The rumor was quickly dismissed by the Vatican. “We don't know anything about it,” Father Lombardi said. It was clear, he told Reuters, that the Pope “is still able to deal with very difficult commitments.”
The story originated from journalist Antonio Socci. Writing in the Italian newspaper Libero, he said “this rumor [of resignation] is circulating high up in the Vatican and therefore deserves close attention.” The Pope, he claimed, “has not rejected the possibility” of resigning on his 85th birthday.
Last year, Pope Benedict candidly told German journalist Peter Seewald in the book “Light of the World” that he could foresee a situation of abdication, such as when a Pope “clearly realizes he is no longer physically or psychologically and spiritually capable.” But he also said that when the danger is great, “one must not run away” and now is “certainly not the time to resign.”
Last week, the Pope's brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, said he believed his younger brother should retire if health problems make it impossible for him to fulfill his pastoral duties, but he made it clear that he was speaking hypothetically and not about any current medical issue. "He is very capable of taking action" now, he said.
Some observers have pointed to signs that could give credence to Socci's speculation, though the evidence is largely unconvincing.
On a visit to L'Aquila in 2009, the Pope unusually left his own “pallium,” a woolen vestment which is a sign of episcopal authority, on the tomb of Pope Saint Celestine V — the only pontiff to have willingly chosen to resign. But the Pope made the visit to honor the 800th anniversary of St. Celestine's birth — a gesture any other pontiff would have made.
As a further possible sign, some have noted that the day before he left for Germany last week, the Pope bestowed the pallium on Cardinal Angelo Scola, an old friend of the Pope, who took up his new appointment as Archbishop of Milan this week (the Pope usually imposes the pallium on several newly appointed bishops on June 29, the Church's feast day of Saints Peter and Paul).
Cardinal Scola, 69, is a leading contender for the papacy, and last week's private ceremony was therefore read by some observers as a possible “anointing of a successor.”
Pope John Paul II broke with tradition and imposed the pallium on the then-Cardinal Ratzinger during Lent of 2003, though probably more in recognition of Cardinal Ratzinger's position as dean of the College of Cardinals than as a sign of his chosen successor.
In spite of how it might seem, the reasons for last week's private ceremony can easily be explained: Cardinal Scola wasn't able to attend the usual June 29 ceremony as his nomination had just been made a few days before.
Last week's ceremony was originally scheduled for Sept. 15, but was postponed to Sept 21 due to illness (of the cardinal). Serendipitously, Sept 21 also marked Scola's 20th anniversary as a bishop.
As a leading prelate with the same theological views as the Pope, Cardinal Scola is nevertheless considered by Vatican watchers to be a top contender to succeed Pope Benedict. Before his appointment to Milan, he was Patriarch of Venice.
Both positions are of great importance to the Italian Church, and have traditionally been seen as possible stepping stones to the papacy.
Antonio Socci is an acclaimed writer in Italy, but he has had conflicts with the Vatican in the past. In 2007, he wrote a book in which he said he had hard evidence that a second text of the Third Secret of Fatima had not yet been published.
The Three Secrets of Fatima consist of a series of visions and prophecies from the Blessed Virgin Mary to three young Portuguese shepherds. One apparition is said to have foreseen the shooting of Pope John Paul II. The contents of the third secret were revealed by the Vatican in 2000.
Socci's claim led to a public dispute between him and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican official who was entrusted by John Paul II with the publication of the third secret.
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