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Pope Francis says ‘door is open’ to eventual retirement as he slows pace

Pope Francis holds a news conference aboard the papal plane on July 29, 2022, during his flight back from a visit to Canada. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Pool/Reuters)
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ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — The trip, Pope Francis said, was a “test” — first a 10-hour flight across the Atlantic and an eight-hour time change, followed by nine speeches in five different places in Canada. It was a lot for an 85-year-old pope with a knee so painful that he can scarcely walk on his own.

So, on the return flight to Rome, Francis said he has concluded that he needs to slow down. He said his style would have to change a bit. He even said the “door is open” to retirement, although nothing is imminent.

“I don’t think I can go with the same pace of the trips as before,” Francis said, conducting his news conference aboard the papal plane from a seat. “I think at my age and with this limitation, I have to save [my energies up] a bit to be able to serve the church or, on the contrary, think about the possibility of stepping aside. This I say with all honesty. It is not a catastrophe. It is possible to change pope.”

He said it was a “normal option” to think about retirement. That echoed other comments in which he has said he would be open to stepping down if his health made it impossible to run the church.

But so far, Francis said, he has not reached that point.

“That doesn’t mean the day after tomorrow I don’t start thinking [about it], right?” Francis said. “But right now, I honestly don’t.”

During his six days in Canada, Francis had moments both of sturdiness and frailty. For all the jet lag, he steadily delivered one speech after the next and enjoyed moments of clear levity — such as when he called for a detour from his wheelchair to get closer to a crowd outside a church.

But he also faced limitations far different from earlier years in his papacy. While visiting an Indigenous community in the plains of Alberta, where he apologized for the brutality of Canada’s residential school system, he was wheeled to the edge of a wooden pathway leading to a cemetery. But he couldn’t move among the grave markers, all of which were on grass.

Although he has been quite healthy for much of his papacy, Francis over the past year-and-a-half has dealt with painful flare-ups of sciatica, has undergone colon surgery, and most recently has experienced knee inflammation that has left him largely dependent on a wheelchair. The lost mobility has forced him to reconsider his hands-on style as pope. Many times, before his Canada trip, he has bemoaned his inability to mix with crowds of pilgrims as he used to.

Is Pope Francis nearing the end of his pontificate?

And that is just one of the ways his pontificate has changed. He no longer has the rock-star following or draws immense crowds. His stories lack the novelty of earlier years — including in news conferences, where he keeps surprises to a minimum. But on some topics — such as aging — his words carry more weight than ever. Many of his prepared remarks touch on the value of the elderly, and it is left for interpretation how much of his sentiment reflects personal experience.

“It warms my heart to see so many grandparents and great-grandparents here,” Francis said at one point during his time in Canada. “I thank you and would like to say to all those families with elderly people at home: You possess a treasure! Guard this source of life within your homes. Take care of it as a precious legacy to be loved and cherished.”

In Canada, organizers shaped the itinerary to meet his limitations. He moved to and from the papal plane on a platform-like lift. He spoke while seated. The trip had a slower pace than preceding tours — with two events most days rather than four or five.

In Canada, Francis asked forgiveness — personally and on behalf of “many” in the Catholic Church — for the church’s involvement in one of Canada’s foremost traumas: residential schools that aimed forcibly to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Christian society. Francis’s trip broke the norms of papal travel because it was overtly intended for penitence, not evangelization.

Francis said he will continue to travel. Although he had to cancel an earlier trip in July to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan because of treatment for his knee, he has a run of short trips within Italy in the coming weeks, and he is to travel to Kazakhstan in September. Francis also raised the possibility of trying once more to visit to Congo.

“It will be next year,” he said.