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Pope Francis’s surgery adds urgency to questions about the remaining years of his papacy

Pope Francis walks in the Vatican’s San Damaso courtyard on June 30, ahead of his surgery. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

ROME — For much of his pontificate, Pope Francis, 84, has carried on at the pace of a much younger man. He eschews weekend breaks. He packs his mornings with meetings. He takes breakneck international trips — with day after day of pre-sunrise alarms — that often seem to leave his traveling party more exhausted than he is.

But this week, Francis was slowed to a halt, hospitalized for colon surgery to address a potentially painful bowel condition that is common among the elderly.

The Vatican says Francis is progressing well after a pre-scheduled operation. He ran a fever Wednesday night, but that had resolved by morning, and subsequent scans and exams did not detect an infection. The Vatican said Thursday that Francis’s condition was continuing to improve.

Yet in Rome and in Catholic circles around the world, what is expected to be a week-long hospitalization has served as a reminder that the pope is reaching an age when people deal more frequently with health problems and become more vulnerable.

For some Catholics, this week’s events have brought urgency to a set of questions that previously seemed at a remove: questions about how Francis will manage his papacy as he nears the second half of his 80s; how long he’ll continue in the role; and whether he might one day step down.

Francis is nearly a decade past the point when Catholic bishops are asked to turn in their resignation letters. He has already been pope for longer than Benedict XVI, and in December, he will turn 85. Since the beginning of the 1800s, only one pope — Leo XIII — has reached age 86 while still in the chair.

Pope Francis, globe-trotting at an age when other popes have eased up, is trying to transform the church through his travels

Vatican watchers roundly agree that Francis is not close to stepping down, and instead may push into historic territory, at a time when humans — including popes — are living longer and longer.

But many also say Francis seems like he would be open to eventually resigning, as Benedict did, rather than holding on as a weakened or even incapacitated pontiff, as John Paul II did in the early 2000s.

The clues are many. In 2014, Francis said that Benedict — the first pope to step down in 700 years — had “opened a door” for other pontiffs to follow suit. The next year, he said in an interview with a Mexican television channel that Benedict “should not be considered an exception,” and he predicted that his own tenure would be “short,” somewhere between two and five years.

The latter prediction has proved false: Francis has already been pope for eight years. But more recently, he told an Argentine doctor and journalist, Nelson Castro, that he imagined himself dying in Rome as pope, “either in office or [as] emeritus.”

Austen Ivereigh, a Francis biographer, said the pope subscribes to the view that every pontiff going forward “should do the same” as Benedict.

“He believes that Benedict’s decision has changed the institution of the papacy,” Ivereigh said. “But I don’t see anything to indicate that he won’t be able to carry on for a few more years.”

The Vatican said on July 5 that Pope Francis was progressing well after being hospitalized for colon surgery. (Video: Reuters)

Putting aside his colon operation, Francis’s health has been remarkably good. Until this week, he had never been hospitalized in his years as pontiff, according to what is publicly known. He deals with sciatica, a painful leg and back condition, but regular physiotherapy has helped to keep the condition at bay.

He had part of one lung removed when he was a young man, and there had been concerns early in the pandemic — when he often went without a mask — about his risk of contracting the coronavirus. But Francis has now been vaccinated, largely easing those fears.

Francis told Castro that he sleeps soundly for six hours per night and takes a 45-minute nap right after lunch.

“I go to my room, take off my shoes and lie down fully dressed,” Francis said in that interview. “I sleep deeply, as if it were nighttime. And I get up feeling good: with a clear head and reinvigorated, as if it were morning again.”

Although the pandemic curtailed his public audiences and restricted his travel, his March trip to Iraq was typically active: three days filled with plane flights, helicopter rides and prayer services conducted under tight security in territory once held by the Islamic State. Only on the plane home did he show a hint of slowing down, confiding to reporters: “On this trip, I felt much more tired than on others.”

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Beyond the matter of his health, there are other reasons Francis seems inclined for now to remain pope, insiders say. Some point to long-standing goals that he has yet to complete: a reorganization of the Roman Curia, or an attempted cleanup of financial corruption. Francis also has been handed an epochal challenge by the coronavirus pandemic, which he has termed as a moment for humankind to rethink its priorities.

One other perceived block on Francis stepping down anytime soon is Benedict himself. His decision to abdicate saved the church from one messy situation — being governed by a weakened octo- or nonagenarian. But it created chaos of its own, establishing Benedict, in the eyes of conservatives, as an alternative authority figure. The church is more ideologically divided than it was eight years ago. And in a few cases, Benedict has controversially intervened in church matters, complicating Francis’s papacy.

Pope Benedict, in retired seclusion, looms in the opposition to Pope Francis

“I can’t see [Francis] resigning when Benedict is still alive,” said Christopher Bellitto, a papal historian at Kean University in Union, N.J. “Having one pope emeritus is confusing enough. Having two would just make the process worse.”

Benedict, at 94, has lived longer than anyone else who has ever been pope. He is frail but believed to be of sound mind.

In the wake of Francis’s surgery, Alberto Melloni, a church historian, argued that this pontificate has entered a concluding chapter, where he will have to make decisions about the final things he might want to prioritize. Melloni recently shared his perspective in an opinion column in La Repubblica, a major Italian daily, and said in an interview that in this new phase, people would be thinking more and more about this papacy’s endpoint.

“Once the pope becomes old, you enter a land that is quite unknown and slippery,” Melloni said.

He acknowledged that there’s no way to know how someone’s health will progress. John Paul II, for instance, had a benign intestinal tumor removed in 1992 and lived 13 more years.

But Melloni, speaking generally, said that in an era when papal resignations are in play, popes might not want to wait until the very end to step aside. If a pope’s condition is too deteriorated, his decision might not be accepted under the one requirement of canon law: that the choice be reached freely. And once a pope is truly weakened, Melloni said, the Vatican bureaucracy will want to keep a pontiff in place, as those in the Roman Curia can capitalize on the power vacuum.

“A pope needs to seize the moment before weakness becomes apparent,” Melloni said.

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