Is Pope Francis Planning a Last Hurrah?

The pontiff believes his days are numbered, and some observers believe his declaration of a holy jubilee year next year is meant to send a signal.

ROME — Of all the things a sitting pope can do, calling for a Holy Jubilee Year is surely one of the more important. It is a joyous occasion that draws millions of Catholic pilgrims to Rome to take part in celebrations and get that ever-important indulgence, or forgiveness for sins, that some believers think will shorten their time in Purgatory.

With the announcement that Pope Francis has designated December 8 as the beginning of what the Vatican calls the Holy Jubilee of Mercy, this enormously popular pontiff is setting yet another record. No pope has ever declared a jubilee year so soon in his papacy. John Paul II held two holy years during his long sojourn, Benedict XVI retired before he had a chance to call such a celebration.

Once more the 78-year-old Francis seems to be racing against the clock, and many in Rome are speculating that his decision to declare such a momentous event so soon in his papacy, barely two years after his election, is to be sure he gets one in before time runs out, as if he is holding a sort of last hurrah or a farewell ceremony. And there are sad, almost sinister undertones.

“This pope seems to be in a hurry to get as much done as he can, as if he’s got a deadline,” Marco Politi, a Vatican expert, said at a small roundtable discussion on Francis and the length of his papacy last week. “He keeps talking about how his time is short, but it’s not because he’s sick. He has told his friends that he feels it will be an ‘event’ that wipes him out, not a natural end.”

In an interview with the Mexican network Televisa this month on the occasion of his second anniversary as pope, the pontiff repeated the idea that his days are numbered. He said he had a feeling that his reign at the helm of the Roman Catholic Church wouldn’t last too long, echoing previous comments in which he said he had a “vague sensation” that his time was short. “I have the feeling that my pontificate will be brief—four or five years,” he said. “I don’t know, even two or three.”

“Maybe it’s like the psychology of the gambler who convinces himself he will lose so he won’t be disappointed, and if he wins, he’s happy,” the pope told the Mexican station. “But I feel that the Lord has placed me here for a short time, and nothing more.”

Maybe the pope is just spinning us to draw attention to his great themes, like the importance of mercy. But if Francis’s premonitions are right and he suddenly disappears from the scene, a Holy Jubilee Year is a great farewell.

Even in less parlous times, a jubilee automatically boosts the Church’s appeal for Catholics, who descend on Rome for the indulgences which are, according to the Vatican website, “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven” so long as their pilgrimage is pious and they pray at any of the designated Jubilee churches.

Jubilee years also historically give a considerable boost to Rome’s economy. Francis’s Jubilee of Mercy has already been described as a “true miracle” at a moment when the lingering economic crisis and the threat of a terrorist attack from ISIS have been reflected in depressing tourism statistics.

Rosario Cerra, head of Rome’s General Confederation of Enterprises, Professions and Self-Employment, called it “an extraordinary opportunity” for businesses to cash in. “Sectors of travel and tourism can expect a 20 percentage-point increase in their GDP, and a significant increase in jobs,” he said. “Everyone needs to have a strategy to make the jubilee elixir work for them.”

The last jubilee 15 years ago, marking the millennium in 2000, attracted more than 25 million extra Catholic pilgrims to Rome, and because it was announced six years before it happened there was plenty of opportunity for Romans to prepare—both to welcome pilgrims and to cash in on their stay.

This time, Rome has just nine months to get ready, which has put the city into an understandable panic, not least of all because preparations will be much more expensive than 15 years ago when Italy and the Vatican still used the Italian lire.

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In 2000, the Jubilee prompted countless renovations of restaurants, public transportation, roads, and services. Religious houses were turned into pilgrim hotels, and private homes that had sat vacant were chopped up into rental apartments. (It is still common to refer to any major improvement to the city as “a Jubilee project.”) The first euro-era jubilee will almost certainly cost more—Rome has already asked the government for €100 million to get the city ready in time. Items high on the priority list are fixing sidewalks, patching streets, and scrubbing the city’s monuments.

Francis’s Jubilee of Mercy will be the 30th the Vatican has observed. The first was called in 1300 by Pope Boniface VIII to boost his power, according to Vatican expert Robert Mickens, who has chronicled the Holy See for nearly 30 years. “The goal and effect were often the same,” he wrote recently in his Roman Observer column. “To boost the pope's power and popularity and to enhance the church's finances.”

This jubilee may well do all those things. But many of those who celebrate will be wondering what comes next.

Pope Francis doesn’t really need much help when it comes to his popularity. In late 2014, his approval rating was 88 percent among American Catholics and slightly higher among Europeans. If he can channel some of the love for him into mercy for the poor, as his Jubilee theme suggests, then what could be his final hurrah will surely be his lasting legacy.