Pope Francis told a Sunday audience at the Vatican that “I truly feel great sorrow for having had to postpone” a July 2 trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan.
The 85-year-old spiritual leader of the world’s Roman Catholics, who has been using a wheelchair in public appearances for the past month, said the schedule change was made “with great regret, due to problems with my leg.”
The trip had been scheduled for July 2, but its postponement was announced by the Vatican last week, which some observers said was an unusually short window for such changes.
More than 100 days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the pope implored his audience to remember the war’s victims.
“The thought of the people of Ukraine, afflicted by war, remains vivid in my heart,” Francis said. “Let the passage of time not temper our grief and concern for that suffering population. Please, let us not grow accustomed to this tragic situation! Let us always keep it in our hearts. Let us pray and strive for peace,” he added.
The pope is also scheduled to visit Canada later in July, in part to meet with representatives of indigenous peoples, many of whom were abuse victims in schools operated by the church. No word on the status of that trip has been given, and nothing has been said by the Vatican about a reported July trip to Lebanon, which had been discussed in May.
The trip cancellation has fueled speculation that the pope is contemplating the end of his papacy, perhaps through retirement. In July 2021, Francis had half of his colon removed after a narrowing of the sigmoid portion of the large intestine, the Associated Press reported at the time.
The colon surgery was the second major operation the pope has faced in his life. In October 1957, following a bout of pleurisy, Francis had the upper part of his right lung removed by doctors, although media reports indicate he’s suffered little from the diminished capacity.
Adding to the speculation was his May 29 announcement of the creation of 21 new cardinals, whose investiture is slated for Aug. 27 in Rome, along with word of a visit the following day to the Italian town of L’Aquila, where Pope Celestine V — the last pontiff to retire from the job before Francis’ immediate predecessor, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI — is buried.
In 2009, Benedict made a similar pilgrimage and placed his pallium stole, a symbol of papal authority, on Celestine’s tomb. Four years later, he resigned and has been living in seclusion at the Vatican since.
Not every papal pundit agrees that Francis’ actions portend a retirement, however.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a member of the same Jesuit order as the pope and a columnist for Religion News Service, said “the speculation about the pope resigning is exactly that, pure speculation. I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
In a telephone interview with The Washington Times, Father Reese said “the problem the pope has is he is a very stubborn man who doesn’t follow his doctor’s advice. He was going around with a bad leg without a cane. I mean, he should have been using a cane for the last six months and said he was you saw him just wincing every time he walked, which of course made matters worse.”
Francis can administer the church from a wheelchair, Father Reese said, much as Franklin Delano Roosevelt led the United States through the Great Depression and most of the Second World War.
“You don’t have to walk to run a country or the Catholic Church. What you need is a good clear mind,” Father Reese said.