When Pope John Paul II died of septic shock and heart failure, in April 2005, he was 84. He had survived cancer, a gunshot, and was in the late stages of Parkinson’s disease, and in the months and years preceding his agonizing end, there was near-constant chatter about the politically incorrect “papal death watch.”
Television networks rented out terraces with a view of St. Peter’s dome, and almost every major publication around the world had a plan in place, from apartments rented to hotel blocks booked for months at a time, for the moment the world’s beloved pope passed away. But his death didn’t happen exactly to plan. Several hospitalizations and close calls in early 2005 amounted to dress rehearsals for what became one of the biggest media events of all time. He finally died after several days of slow suffering, and all the while the Vatican press office promised he was getting better. Thousands of faithful pilgrims flocked to Rome to hold vigil in St. Peter’s Square, where they sang and prayed until the light finally went out in his famous window.
Joseph Ratzinger was elected in the secret conclave a few weeks later, and became Pope Benedict XVI. At 78, he was the oldest new pope in nearly 300 years. It would be an exaggeration to claim that the world’s media are preparing for the next papal passing with the same vigor as they did last time, but there is definitely new attention to this pope’s health.
Now 84 himself, Pope Benedict XVI is clearly starting to slow down. Earlier this month, when he started using the same rolling platform to navigate St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican journalists wondered aloud if he was unwell, and preparations for the inevitable began in full. “The purpose is exclusively to alleviate the efforts of the Holy Father, as already happens with his use of the Popemobile during entrance processions in outdoor ceremonies and in St. Peter’s Square,” assured the papal pressman Father Federico Lombardi. Still, a sudden surge in Vatican accreditations told the real story.
Pope Benedict XVI has had his own share of medical mishaps and threats. In 1991, before he was pope, he suffered a hemorrhagic stroke that briefly affected his eyesight. In 1992, he suffered a blackout and fell in his bathroom, cutting his head and requiring stitches and a brief hospitalization. During his 2009 Easter Mass, he briefly stumbled, casing a mild panic among his aides to prevent a full frontal fall on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica. During a summer vacation in the Italian Alps in July 2009, he fell and broke his wrist, and needed surgery to set it back in place. Again in 2009, during a Christmas Eve Mass, a mentally deranged woman jumped the barrier inside St. Peter’s Basilica and tackled the pontiff to the ground. He was unharmed but visibly shaken by the event.
No matter how long this pope may live, the popular pastime of guessing the next pope—naming the papabili—is already well under way in many Roman corners. But this pope wouldn’t necessarily have to pass away to set the wheels in motion. He could retire. When he headed the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, he tried to retire twice “due to poor health,” but his predecessor John Paul II refused to let him go. He acknowledged in a biography co-written with German journalist Peter Seewald that he saw nothing wrong with retiring from the papacy: “If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.”
Prominent Italian Vatican journalist Antonio Socci fueled further panic last month when he wrote in Libero newspaper that this pope could call it quits next spring. “For now, he [Joseph Ratzinger’s personal assumption], is saying that this may be true but I hope the story does not reach the news,” Socci wrote. “But this rumor is circulating high up in the Vatican and therefore deserves close attention. The pope has not rejected the possibility of his resignation when he turns 85 in April next year.”
Idle speculation aside, this pope shows no clear sign of budging soon. And other than a few natural setbacks that come with age, he is not exactly where his predecessor John Paul II was at the same age. But that hasn’t stopped Vatican watchers from wondering and the media from preparing.