Pope Francis (pictured yesterday) has fueled speculation he could resign after postponing a trip to Africa and announcing an unusual meeting of cardinals

Pope sparks resignation rumors after postponing Africa trip and holding unusual cardinals meeting

Pope Francis has fueled speculation he could resign after postponing a trip to Africa and announcing an unusual meeting of cardinals.

The 85-year-old pope, who has been disabled by knee pain and forced to use a wheelchair in recent weeks, postponed a July trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan last week.

He also announced an unusual decision to hold a consistory during a month’s holiday at the Vatican to appoint new cardinals, and arranged meetings to ensure his reforms remain intact.

Pope Francis (pictured yesterday) has fueled speculation he could resign after postponing a trip to Africa and announcing an unusual meeting of cardinals

The Extraordinary Consistory will be held at Catholic headquarters on August 27, a slow summer month, to appoint 21 new cardinals – 16 of whom will be under the age of 80 and thus entitled to choose his successor in a future conclave.

Since becoming pope in 2013, the Argentine pope has created 83 cardinals to shape the future of the Catholic Church, in part to counteract Europe’s historically dominant influence and reflect its values.

Then, on August 28, Francis will visit L’Aquila and the tomb of Celestine V – the first pope to resign from the papacy in the 13th century.

He then joins the world’s cardinals – many meeting with their peers for the first time – in two days of discussions on the reform of the Roman Curia, which Francis announced in March with the unveiling of a new constitution.

Francis’ reorganization of the Roman Curia seeks to bring the Church back to its pastoral roots, allows lay Catholics to head Vatican departments, and creates a dicastery dedicated to charity work, among other reforms.

The moves have sparked intense speculation about his plans for the future, including the most radical – that he was planning to step down.

The resignation of a pope was once almost unthinkable until Benedict XVI. Resigned his reign in 2013 citing his declining physical and mental health.

In 2014, a year after he was elected to replace Benedict, Francis himself told reporters that his health would hamper his functions as pope, he was also considering stepping down.

Francis previously told reporters that his health would hamper his functions as pope, he would consider stepping down (pictured yesterday).

Francis previously told reporters that his health would hamper his functions as pope, he would consider stepping down (pictured yesterday).

“He (Benedict) opened a door, the door for retired popes,” the pope then said.

Recently in May, as various Italian media reported, during a closed-door meeting with bishops, Francis joked about his knee: “Instead of operating, I will resign.”

But Vatican insiders don’t yet believe Francis is on the verge of handing over the papal keys.

A source told AFP: “Around the pope, the majority of people don’t really believe in the possibility of resigning.”

Rumors within the isolated Roman Curia – the Catholic Church’s powerful governing body – are nothing new and are often fueled by interested parties, Italian Vatican expert Marco Politi said.

“These rumors are being fueled by the Pope’s opponents, who are only keen to see Francis go,” he told AFP.

A trip to Canada in late July is still on the Pope’s schedule, and the Pope will continue to receive injections in his knee and physical therapy, according to the Vatican.

As a child, Francis had one of his lungs partially removed. Today, in addition to his knee problems, he suffers from recurring sciatic nerve pain.

Rumors of a retirement surfaced last year after Francis underwent colon surgery, leading him to tell a Spanish radio station that the idea “didn’t even occur to me”.

Politi said of the recent resignation rumors: “At this stage, it’s about being realistic and not alarming.”

He said it was “hard to imagine” that Francis would step down while the Synod of Bishops — a momentous initiative for Francis to examine how the church moves forward in a more inclusive way — is ongoing and due to be completed in 2023.

Alberto Melloni, a professor of Christianity and secretary of the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies in Bologna, told AFP “absurd” assumptions had been made about the pope’s health and intentions.

“These are things you want to understand and speculate on but have little to say,” he said.

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