What Happens If Pope Francis Resigns? The Protocols in Place for Retirement

Speculation about Pope Francis' future continues to grow as the Vatican announced Friday he would not be going on a scheduled trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan this July.

"At the request of his doctors, and in order not to jeopardize the results of the therapy that he is undergoing for his knee, the Holy Father has been forced to postpone, with regret, his Apostolic Journey to the Democratic Republic of Congo and to South Sudan, planned for 2 to 7 July, to a later date to be determined," said Matteo Bruni, the director of the Holy See Press Office, in a statement.

The knee problem has caused the pope, 85, to use a wheelchair at recent events. And, in July 2021, he underwent intestinal surgery, which kept him in the hospital for 10 days.

While rumors of the pope being ill and ready to resign are common in Italian media, the speculations were renewed by the announcement that the pope will travel to L'Aquila in central Italy in late August—similarly to previous (rare) popes who have retired.

But is that the protocol for a pontiff's resignation?

What Is the Protocol If a Pope Resigns

Pope Francis
Pope Francis, seated in a wheelchair following knee treatment, waves as he leaves after presiding over the Rosary for peace in Ukraine and end to wars worldwide, on May 31, 2022 at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. Rumors of the pope's resignation have been fueled by various health issues. FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images

Newsweek has found no protocols set in stone for such an occurrence as it is very rare. The only certainty if the pope is to resign is that cardinals will gather together to name a successor.

The College of Cardinals is made up of the Catholic Church's most senior officials. They are appointed by the Pope and ordained by bishops.

Newsweek has reached out to the Vatican for comment.

What Happened the Last Time a Pope Resigned?

The latest pope to resign was Benedict XVI, who left the Holy See on February 28, 2013-the first pontiff to resign in around 600 years. He stated that his resignation came over concerns over his health.

At the time, the Vatican had indicated that Benedict XVI would keep the honorific title of "His Holiness" following the abdication and that he would be known as "pope emeritus." He would wear a "simple white cassock" and his ring of office as pope would be destroyed according to Vatican tradition. It is unclear whether this would apply to Pope Francis should he choose to retire.

Thirteen days after his official resignation, on March 13, 2013, the College of Cardinals officially elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who would become Pope Francis, as head of the Catholic Church. To signal that a new pope has been designated, white smoke emerges from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel.

Will Pope Francis Resign?

The pope has not officially said that he will resign. As stated above, the rumors have been re-ignited due to the fact that Francis is set to visit the Italian city of L'Aquila in August for a feast.

The "Feast of Forgiveness" was inaugurated by Pope Celestine V, who abdicated in 1294.

Robert Mickens, editor of the English edition of La Croix, a Catholic daily newspaper, has stated: "it's very odd to have a consistory in August, there's no reason that he needs to call this [event] three months in advance and then go to L'Aquila in the middle of it."

Benedict XVI had also visited L'Aquila in 2009. He would retire four years later.

The celebrations will begin a day after Francis is set to designate 21 new cardinals, who will be able to elect a new pope.

Additionally, the Vatican has formally announced two days of talks following the feast and to brief the new cardinals on the reforms supported by Francis made to the Vatican bureaucracy. These include allowing women to lead Vatican offices.