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A New Pope in 2016?

I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a new pope a year from now. I’m not making a prediction—my prognosticational abilities are not sufficiently developed. I’m just bringing up a possibility, one that I think isn’t farfetched.

Let me begin by turning back the calendar a few pages, to 1292. Pope Nicholas IV, who had been reigning since 1288, died that April. He had been elected only after a long impasse among the papal electors. As it turned out, his successor was elected after an even more protracted interregnum. For two years following Nicholas’s death the cardinals were unable (or maybe unwilling) to elect a new pope.

Their dithering scandalized Christendom. It particularly scandalized an old Benedictine hermit who lived in a cave in the Abruzzi region of central Italy. His name was Pietro da Morrone. He wrote a letter to the cardinals, telling them that divine displeasure would be visited upon them if they failed to choose a successor to Nicholas immediately. They shortly wrote back to him: “Okay, we have elected you.” Pietro was not happy with this unexpected turn of events, but he consented to his election, taking the name Celestine V.

He was a mild, retiring man, said to be unable to say “No” to anyone. He ended up appointing suppliants to whatever positions they wished. He even appointed multiple men to the same office. He was holy but wholly incompetent.

At least he was sensible enough to realize that he was unfit for the job. He consulted with the man who would end up as his successor, Cardinal Benedetto Caetani, who assured Celestine that resignation was permissible. Just to make sure, Celestine issued a formal decree stating that a pope could resign, and then he resigned. He had been in office barely five months.

If you recall hearing Celestine’s name in recent years, it probably was when Benedict XVI visited his tomb. That was in 2010, near the conclusion of a year-long celebration of the eight-hundredth anniversary of Celestine’s birth. At the time, no one paid much attention to Benedict’s lingering to pray before the saint’s remains, but, after Benedict announced his own resignation in 2013, people recalled his visit and speculated that even in 2010 he was contemplating stepping down.

Pope Francis may be thinking along the same lines.

A year ago, on the return flight from a visit to South Korea, Francis said to the reporters who accompanied him, “Let us think about what [Benedict XVI] said, ‘I have got old, I do not have the strength.’ It was a beautiful gesture of nobility, of humility and courage.” Then, with a reference to his own frail constitution, he said, “I know this will last a short time, two or three years, and then to the house of the Father.” Two years from 2014 is 2016.

If Francis retires (please notice: “if,” not “when,” since I’m not predicting that he will retire, only that he might), I don’t think it would be before October’s synod. He certainly would want to see that project through. Unlike some others, I’m not much concerned about the wayward cardinals and bishops who will be in attendance. I don’t think they will come close to having the votes to force through a less-than-orthodox final statement, and I don’t for a minute suspect that Francis secretly wants them to prevail.

Nothing in his moral teaching over the years—whether as cardinal or pope—gives any support to such speculation. But I do think Francis wants the synod to be a “success” (however he envisions that), and I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought that, seeing it to its conclusion, he had “done his duty” and could feel free to lay aside papal responsibilities.

Like Celestine V, Francis undoubtedly is a holy man. Also like Celestine, though to a considerably lesser degree, he does not match his recent predecessors in terms of diplomatic or administrative skills.

It is not a sign of a lack of filial respect to note what many have noted, that Francis, when speaking extemporaneously, frequently speaks confusingly. The proof is in how often Fr. Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See’s press office, finds himself before the cameras, trying to put an acceptable spin on the Pope’s words.

Of course, over the last several decades, under Lombardi and his predecessor, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, there were many occasions for the press office to explain a papal writing or utterance, but normally those were restatements, in popular language, of subtle and precise papal wording. Under Francis, the need has been somewhat different.

The press office has had to put theological substance into colloquial expressions such as “Who am I to judge?”—a comment that many people thought meant that one couldn’t pass judgment on the sinfulness of the homosexual lifestyle. It’s easy to take off-the-cuff remarks out of context, because they often don’t have much context. It’s harder to misconstrue written remarks that have gone through the customary and long Vatican editorial process.

I think that by this time Francis understands that, however successful he has been in terms of image, he has not had as much success in terms of teaching, nor has he had as much success in terms of reorganization of the Vatican machinery.

When he was elected, there were wide expectations that Francis would clean the Augean stables, but so far there hasn’t been much use of the broom. Cardinal George Pell of Australia was put in charge of fixing the Holy See’s finances, and he seems to be doing a good job of it, but it’s hard to point to other reorganizational successes. Last year, three days before Christmas, the Pope gave a stern lecture to the curial cardinals, but little seems to have come from it.

Two-and-a-half years into Francis’s papacy, not much seems to have changed. Perhaps Francis recognizes himself to be a successful symbol but not so much a successful communicator or a successful reorganizer.

Assume that’s his thinking, and then take into account the Pope’s age and not-so-robust health. I wouldn’t be surprised if he followed the example of his predecessor.

It’s possible—I’m not saying it’s likely, but it’s possible—that sometime next year we again will hear from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica the deeply intoned words “Habemus papam!



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