Pope Francis’ Recent Surgery Seen as Turning Point in his Papacy 

The Vatican has stressed Pope Francis is recovering well from his recent colon surgery and a ten-day post-operative stay in hospital.  Later this year, he has trips to Hungary and Slovakia planned. Vatican officials also confirmed last week that the pope will attend in November the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.

Nonetheless, some Vatican observers say the 84-year-old’s surgery earlier this month, undertaken at the Gemelli hospital in Rome, may later be seen as a turning point in his papacy and it will likely add greater urgency to his reform plans, including efforts to overhaul the notoriously change-resistant Curia, the administrative institutions of the Holy See.

Already in Rome, there is speculation about who might succeed Francis, with some Vatican watchers pointing out that Francis has hinted in the past he may follow his predecessor, Benedict XVI, and step aside, if his health seriously deteriorates, rather than follow tradition and die in office.  

Benedict became in 2013 the first pope to relinquish office since 1415, possibly setting a modern-day precedent.

Two weeks after surgeons removed a large portion of his colon because of an intestinal narrowing, Pope Francis resumed his weekly appearances from a Vatican window Sunday for his regular blessing of the faithful in St Peter’s Square. He spoke for 14 minutes, but at one point appeared short of breath.   

Among the crowds in the square were a number of Cuban residents waving banners supporting recent anti-government protests in their homeland. “I am near to the dear Cuban people in these difficult moments, especially to the families who are suffering more,” Francis said during his address.

But aside from weekly Sunday appearances the pontiff, who had one of his lungs removed as a teenager because of infection and who suffers sciatica causing him to walk with a limp, has no other public appearances listed for the rest of July. Vatican officials say he will be spending the rest of the month and early August largely focusing on recuperating.

But while there are no immediate health alarms, some Vatican watchers suggest the Pope’s lengthy hospitalization — it was double the time slated — is already focusing minds on what and who will follow Francis and also how the rest of his papacy will likely unfold.

Beginning of the end

His surgery may be “the moment that marked the beginning of the end of his papacy,” noted American Jesuit priest and influential Catholic columnist Thomas Reese in an opinion article published last week by the Religion News Service, a nonprofit news site.

“Even with the best prognosis, age is catching up to Francis. Barring a miracle, he will only be expected to continue as pope for five or six years,” Reese wrote. He indicated that Francis has much to do, if he’s going to leave an enduring legacy of change.

Francis has sought to reduce the power of the clerical establishment and to rebrand the papacy to make it more outgoing, less dogmatic and focused on pastoral duties and inclusivity. “Where he has been less successful is in winning over the clerical establishment to his vision for the church. In his eight years as pope, Francis has hardly dented the clerical establishment that he inherited,” according to Reese.

The sense of time running out may have been behind the pontiff’s decision last week to reverse one of Benedict XVI’s signature decisions and to crack down on the spread of the old Latin Mass in what is being seen as a major challenge to traditionalist Catholics. They immediately condemned it as an attack on them and the ancient liturgy.  

His move to re-impose tight restrictions on celebrating the Latin Mass beloved by conservative doctrinal opponents has prompted a ferocious reaction with commentator Damian Thompson, host of the Holy Smoke podcast in Britain, describing it as “a poison-pen letter from the pontiff.”

Other conservative Catholics accused the pope of high-handedness and treating traditionalists as “second-class Catholics.”

The pontiff said he was making the move because the use of the Latin Mass had become a source of division in the church and was being used by Catholics opposed to modernization of the Church. In 2007, Benedict relaxed restrictions on the use of Latin Mass.

Critics of Pope Francis say his repudiation was highly unusual in the thoroughness of reversing a predecessor’s policy — and even more eye-opening considering Benedict is still alive and living in the Vatican. Under the terms of the new rule, priests who want to celebrate the Latin Mass rather than in the vernacular will require the prior approval of their bishops who will have to consult the Vatican.

Francis has been engaged in a series of sharp skirmishes with conservative clerics and their supporters ever since his election as pope in a long-running doctrinal struggle between progressives and conservatives over church reform.

The clashes have included how to handle clerical sex abuse scandals and his tacit approval of parish priests giving communion to divorced-and-remarried couples.

His supporters say Francis has tried to make the Church less rigid and dogmatic.

His opponents say he has been undermining the moral consistency of the Catholic Church.

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