If you think your diary looks busy over the next few days, spare a thought for Pope Francis.
The 85-year-old, who was confined to a wheelchair for several months this year, is preparing for a big weekend.
He will be spending it in the company of the world’s cardinals – the red-clad figures who are supposed to be his closest advisers but seldom meet en masse in Rome these days.
Now the pope has finally decided to gather them together – in the Eternal City’s unforgiving August heat.
The pope will be adding to the cardinals’ number today. Tomorrow, he will be dashing off to L’Aquila, the Italian city that boasts the tomb of Pope Celestine V, who resigned in 1294. He will shuttle back to the Vatican for a meeting with the cardinals on his new constitution for the Roman Curia.
What is the meaning of this frenetic activity?
With Pope Francis, it’s always hard to tell as he likes to keep everyone guessing. Hence, the explosion of speculation when the Vatican unveiled his programme for the end of August.
Will he announce his resignation in L’Aquila? Could he unveil new norms governing the role of retired popes? Or maybe he will change the rules around the conclave electing his successor? Might he even nominate a ‘coadjutor’ pope to eventually succeed him? That’s just a taste of the theories.
Rome has had a fin du pontificat feel ever since Francis underwent colon surgery in July 2021. He responded to his health challenges by going into overdrive.
Just days after leaving hospital, he launched a global crackdown on the traditional Latin Mass.
In March, he suddenly released the new Vatican constitution. These two major acts of his pontificate both had a slapdash quality. He gave the world’s bishops little warning of his onslaught on Catholic traditionalism, which requires them to suppress Masses often packed with young families. And although the new constitution was nine years in the making, it contained typos.
The accelerated changes over the past year have underlined the polarising character of this papacy.
To his admirers, Pope Francis is a fun, fearless and freewheeling figure, guided by the Holy Spirit to shake up a stultifying, inward-looking Church.
To his critics, he is an erratic authoritarian, ambivalent on clerical abuse and relentlessly disparaging of traditionalist Catholics. It’s almost as if there are two Francis’s: one already canonised and the other hotly demonised.
What does this say about the Catholic Church today? Catholicism – once described as a ‘vast, ramshackle empire’ – essentially runs on trust. Things work well when lay Catholics can trust one another and their parish priest, when the priest can trust his bishop, and the bishop can trust the pope.
But in parts of the Catholic world, these relationships have broken down. Internet polemics have undermined trust among the laity. The abuse crisis has corroded trust between lay people and priests, as well as priests and bishops. Pope Francis’s frantic manoeuvres have strained the trust of some bishops – though it’s impossible to say how many as they tend to express their concerns privately.
Where there is a lack of trust, there is also fear. And where there’s fear, there’s speculation — in this case, that Pope Francis has some Church-shaking plans up his white sleeve this weekend.
But it would be very much in his style if the next few days came and went without any dramatic announcement – and he dropped the big news when we were least expecting it.