Now That the Pope Is 85 Years Old…

by Francis X. Rocca

Pope Benedict XVI’s 85th birthday, April 16, and the seventh anniversary of his election, April 19, were obviously occasions for wishing the pope well and reflecting on the events of his reign thus far.  Inevitably, however, these milestones also prompt speculation about what Vatican officials and observers refer to diplomatically as “papal transition.”

Pope Benedict, after all, is already the sixth-oldest pope since the 1400s, when records became available. It has been almost two years since he told a German interviewer, “My forces are diminishing” and that, when it comes to public appearances, “I wonder whether I can make it even from a purely physical point of view.”
Last fall, the pope stopped walking in processions up the main aisle of St. Peter’s and started riding a mobile platform instead; in March, it was revealed that he sometimes walks with a cane.

While none of this suggests that the pope does not have years of life ahead of him, some commentators have asked in print, and many more have done so off the record, if he might be getting ready to step down. Pope Benedict himself has said that a pope might have an “obligation to resign” once he “is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office.”

No clear-eyed observer can deny that Pope Benedict is unusually robust for his age. He is reportedly at work on the third volume of his bestselling “Jesus of Nazareth” series and is presumed to be writing at least one encyclical: on the theological virtue of faith, to follow his works on charity (“Deus Caritas Est”) and hope (“Spe Salvi”). The pope will be traveling to Lebanon this September, and the Vatican has done nothing to discourage the widespread assumption that he will follow established papal precedent by attending World Youth Day celebrations next summer in Rio de Janeiro.

As the pope told former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, also 85, at a meeting in Havana in March: “Yes, I’m old, but I can still carry out my duties.”
If a leader as traditional as Pope Benedict does not consider Blessed John Paul’s example a binding precedent, he clearly sees it as an inspiring standard for his own conduct. Concluding his homily at Blessed John Paul’s beatification Mass last May, Pope Benedict paid a personal tribute to his predecessor’s “witness in suffering.”

“The Lord gradually stripped him of everything,” Pope Benedict recalled, “yet he remained ever a ‘rock,’ as Christ desired. … In this way he lived out in an extraordinary way the vocation of every priest and bishop to become completely one with Jesus, whom he daily receives and offers in the church.”

Francis X. Rocca directs CNS’ Rome bureau.