Pope discusses his health, his critics and future of papacy

AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis
Pope Francis pauses during an interview with The Associated Press at The Vatican, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023.

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis says he hasn’t considered issuing norms to regulate future papal resignations and plans to continue for as long as he can as bishop of Rome, despite a wave of criticism from some top-ranking conservative cardinals and bishops about his papal priorities.

In his first interview since the Dec. 31 death of retired Pope Benedict XVI, Francis addressed his critics, his health and the next phase of his pontificate, which marks its 10th anniversary in March without Benedict’s shadow in the background.

Francis’ comments, delivered Tuesday at the Vatican hotel where he lives, came at a particularly difficult time, as the pontiff navigates conservative opposition to his insistence on making the Catholic Church a more welcoming, inclusive place — criticism that he attributed to the equivalent of a 10-year itch of his papacy.

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

Some commentators believe Francis might be freer to maneuver now following Benedict’s death. Others suggest that any sort of ecclesial peace that had reigned was over and that Francis is now more exposed to critics, deprived of the moderating influence Benedict played in keeping the conservative Catholic fringe at bay.

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

“I wouldn’t relate it to Benedict, but because of the wear-and-tear of a government of 10 years,” 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 discomfort “when they started to see my flaws and didn’t like them,” he said of his critics.

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

The pontiff, meanwhile, said he was in good shape, that a slight bone fracture in his knee from a fall had healed without surgery and was ready to get on with his agenda.

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

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

Speculation about Francis’ health and the future of his pontificate has only risen following the death of Benedict, whose 2013 resignation marked a turning point for the Catholic Church since he was the first pontiff in six centuries to retire.

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

“For me, he was a security. In the face of a doubt, I would ask for the car and go to the monastery and ask,” he said of his visits to Benedict’s retirement home for counsel. “I lost a good companion.”

Some cardinals and canon lawyers have said the Vatican must issue norms to regulate future papal retirements to prevent the few hiccups that occurred during Benedict’s unexpectedly long retirement, during which he remained a point of reference for some conservatives and traditionalists who refused to recognize Francis’ legitimacy.

From the name Benedict chose (pope emeritus) to the (white) cassock he wore to his occasional public remarks (on priestly celibacy and sex abuse), these commentators said norms must make clear there is only one reigning pope for the sake of the unity of the church.

Francis said issuing such norms hadn’t even occurred to him.

“I’m telling you the truth,” he said, adding that the Vatican needed more experience with papal retirements before setting out to “regularize or regulate” them.

Francis has said Benedict “opened the door” to future resignations, and that he too would consider stepping down. He repeated Tuesday that if he were to resign he’d be called the bishop emeritus of Rome and would live in the residence for retired priests in the diocese of Rome.

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

“He was still ‘enslaved’ as a pope, no?” Francis said. “Of the vision of a pope, of a system. ‘Slave’ in the good sense of the word: In that he wasn’t completely free, as he would have liked to have returned to his Germany and continued studying theology.”

By one calculation, Benedict’s death removes the main obstacle to Francis resigning, since the prospect of two pensioner popes was never an option. But Francis said Benedict’s death hadn’t altered his calculations. “It didn’t even occur to me to write a will,” he said.

As for his own near-term future, Francis emphasized his role as “bishop of Rome” as opposed to pontiff and said of his plans: “Continue being 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 power player or papal “court.”

Francis also addressed the criticism from cardinals and bishops that burst into public in the weeks since Benedict’s death, saying it’s unpleasant — “like a rash that bothers you a bit” — but that is better than keeping it under wraps. Francis has been attacked for years by conservatives and traditionalists who object to his priorities of social justice issues such as poverty, migration and the environment.

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

The first salvo in the latest wave of attacks came from Benedict’s longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, who revealed the bad blood that accumulated over the last 10 years in a tell-all memoir published in the days after Benedict’s funeral.

In one of the most explosive sections, Gaenswein revealed that Benedict learned by reading the Vatican daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano that Francis had reversed one of the former pope’s most significant liturgical decisions and re-imposed restrictions on celebrating the Old Latin Mass.

A few days later, the Vatican was rattled anew by the death of another conservative stalwart, Cardinal George Pell, and revelations that Pell was the author of a devastating memorandum that circulated last year that called the Francis pontificate a “disaster” and a “catastrophe.”

The memo, which was initially published under the pseudonym “Demos,” listed what it considered problems in the Vatican under Francis, from its precarious finances to the pontiff’s preaching style, and issued bullet points for what a future pope should do to fix them.

Francis acknowledged Pell’s criticism but still sang his praises for having been his “right-hand man” on reforming the Vatican’s finances as his first economy minister.

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