Pope discusses his health, his critics and the future of the papacy

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis says he has not considered issuing standards to regulate future papal resignations and plans to remain bishop of Rome for as long as he can, despite a wave of criticism from some leading conservatives cardinals and bishops about his papal priorities.

In his first conversation since the death of retired Pope Benedict XVI on December 31, Francis has addressed his critics, his health and the next phase of his pontificate, which will mark his 10th anniversary in March without Benedict’s shadow in the background.

Francis’ remarks, delivered Tuesday at the Vatican hotel where he lives, came at a particularly difficult time as the pope navigates conservative opposition to his push to make the Catholic Church a more welcoming, inclusive place – criticisms that he attributed to the equivalent of a 10-year itch from his papacy.

“You prefer that they don’t criticize, for the sake of peace,” Francis told The Associated Press. “But I prefer they do it because that means there’s freedom of speech.”

Some commentators think Francis can now maneuver more freely after Benedict’s death. Others suggest that any kind of ecclesiastical peace that prevailed was over and that Francis is now more exposed to critics, devoid of the moderating influence Benedict played to keep the conservative Catholic fringe at bay.

Francis acknowledged that the knives were out, but seemed almost optimistic about it.

“I wouldn’t associate it with Benedict, but with the wear and tear of a 10-year reign,” Francis said of his critics. He reasoned that his election was initially greeted with a sense of “surprise” about a South American pope. Then came the discomfort “when they started seeing my shortcomings and not liking them,” he said of his critics.

“All I ask is that they do it with my face, because that’s how we all grow, right?” he added.

The pope, meanwhile, said he was in good shape, a minor bone fracture in his knee after a fall had healed without surgery and he was ready to move forward with his agenda.

“I am in good health. I’m normal for my age,” the 86-year-old pope said, though he revealed that diverticulosis, or bulges in his intestinal wall, had “returned.” Francis had 33 centimeters (13 inches) of his colon removed in 2021 due to what the Vatican said was inflammation causing a narrowing of his colon.

“I could die tomorrow, but it’s under control. I’m in good health,” he said with his typical wry sense of humour.

Speculation about Francis’s health and the future of his pontificate has only increased after Benedict’s deathwhose resignation in 2013 marked a turning point for the Catholic Church, as he was the first pope to retire in six centuries.

Francis praised Benedict as an “old-fashioned gentleman” and said of his death, “I lost a father.”

“He was a security to me. When in doubt, I would ask for the car and go to the monastery to ask,” he said of his visits to Benedict’s retirement home for advice. “I’ve lost a good companion.”

Some cardinals and ecclesiastical lawyers have said the Vatican should issue standards to regulate future papal retirements to avoid the few problems that arose during Benedict’s unexpectedly long retirement, during which he remained a point of reference for some conservatives and traditionalists who refused to accept the legitimacy to recognize Francis. .

From the name Benedict chose (Pope Emeritus) to the (white) cassock he wore to his occasional public remarks (about priestly celibacy and sexual abuse), these commentators said standards should make it clear that there is only one reigning pope for the sake of the unity of the church.

Francis said issuing such standards had not even occurred to him.

“I’m telling you the truth,” he said, adding that the Vatican needed more experience with the resignations of popes before it began “regulating or regulating” them.

Francis has said that Benedict “opened the door” to future resignations, and that he too would consider resigning. He reiterated on Tuesday that if he resigned, he would be named bishop emeritus of Rome and live in the residence for retired priests in the diocese of Rome.

Francis said Benedict’s decision to live in a converted convent in the Vatican Gardens was a “good interim solution” but that future retired popes might want to do things differently.

“He was still ‘enslaved’ as pope, wasn’t he?” said Francis. “From a pope’s vision, from a system. ‘Slave’ in the good sense of the word: he was not completely free in that, because he would have liked to return to his Germany to study theology.”

By one calculation, Benedict’s death removes the main obstacle to Francis’ resignation, as the prospect of two retired popes was never an option. But Francis said Benedict’s death hadn’t changed his calculations. “It didn’t even cross my mind to write a will,” he said.

As for his own near-term future, Francis emphasized his role as “bishop of Rome” rather than pope, saying of his plans: “Remain bishop, bishop of Rome in communion with all the bishops of the world.” He said he wanted to put to rest the concept of the papacy as a powerful player or a papal “court”.

Francis also addressed the criticism from cardinals and bishops that erupted publicly in the weeks following Benedict’s death, saying it’s unpleasant – “like a rash that bothers you a little” – but that’s better than it to keep secret. Francis has been under attack for years by conservatives and traditionalists who object to his social justice priorities, such as poverty, migration and the environment.

“If it were not so, there would be a distant dictatorship, as I call it, where the emperor is and no one can tell him anything. No, let them speak, because … criticism helps you grow and improve things,” he said.

The first salvo in the last wave of attacks came from Benedict’s longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, who revealed the bad blood that had accumulated over the past 10 years in a telling memoir published in the days following Benedict’s funeral.

In one of the most explosive sections, Gaenswein revealed that Benedict had learned from reading the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano that Francis had reversed one of the former pope’s most important liturgical decisions and reintroduced restrictions on the celebration of the Old Testament. Latin mass.

A few days later, the Vatican was once again rocked by the death of another conservative stalwart, Cardinal George Pell, and revelations that Pell was the author of a damning memorandum circulated last year calling Francis’s pontificate a “disaster” and a “catastrophe” was called. .”

The memo, which was initially published under the pseudonym “Demos,” listed what it perceived to be problems in the Vatican under Francis, from precarious finances to the pope’s preaching style, and listed what a future pope should do to solve them.

Francis acknowledged Pell’s criticism, but still sang his praises for being his “right-hand man” in reforming Vatican finances as his prime economics minister.

“Even if they say he criticized me, fine, he has a right. Criticism is a human right,” said Francis. But he added: “He was a great guy. Great.”

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