Still Going Strong: Pope Francis Turns 85, Has No Plans of Stepping Down or Giving Up

Pope Francis celebrated his 85th birthday Friday but still seems to have no plans of stepping down or even slowing down anytime soon. His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, retired at the age of 85 in 2013, but Francis remains engaged in his campaigns to squash corruption, promote economic prudence and instill just leadership in a church that is not without its controversies.

Reverend Antonio Spadaro, an Italian Jesuit priest, said that he still sees "a lot of energy" in the pope.

"What we're seeing is the natural expression, the fruit of the seeds that he has sown," he said.

Francis recently reached the end of a trip to Greece and Cyprus, following up his early visits in 2021 to Iraq, Slovakia and Hungary. The feats are made even more notable in light of his intestinal surgery over the summer, persisting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and push back against some of his initiatives from more conservative members of the church.

Faced with the Vatican's $57 million budget deficit, the pope has commanded a 10 percent pay cut for cardinals and whittled down pay for other Vatican employees since his birthday last year.

He has also established a $45 gift cap for Holy See personnel, given the green light for the criminal prosecution of cardinals and bishops by the Vatican's lay-led tribunal and approved a law in 2019 regarding the investigation of sexual abuse cover-ups.

Despite his critics, Holy See cardinals, bishops and priests who attended an Advent meditation Friday morning led a round of birthday applause.

"Each of life's stages is a time to believe, hope and love," the pope tweeted Friday.

Pope Turns 85
Pope Francis is celebrating his 85th birthday Friday, December 17, 2021, a milestone made even more remarkable given the coronavirus pandemic, his summertime intestinal surgery and the weight of history. Above, Francis attends a meeting with priests, religious men and women, seminarians and catechists, at the Cathedral of Saint Martin, in Bratislava, Slovakia, on September 13, 2021. Gregorio Borgia/AP Photo

Francis also has set in motion an unprecedented two-year consultation of rank-and-file Catholics on making the church more attuned to the laity.

After spending the first eight years of his papacy gently nudging Catholic hierarchs to embrace financial prudence and responsible governance, Francis took the gloves off this year, and appears poised to keep it that way.

Francis also approved term limits for leaders of lay Catholic movements to try to curb their abuses of power, resulting in the forced removal of influential church leaders. He recently accepted the resignation of the Paris archbishop after a media storm alleging governance and personal improprieties.

"In the past year, Pope Francis has accelerated his efforts at reform by putting real teeth into the church's canon law regarding finances," the Reverend Robert Gahl, director of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross's Program of Church Management, said.

"While celebrating his birthday, Vatican watchers are also looking for more concrete signs of compliance regarding the pope's new rules, especially from those who report directly to him within the Vatican," Gahl said in an email, noting that a change in culture is needed alongside Francis' new policies and regulations.

If there was anything Francis did this past year that riled his critics, it was his July decision to reverse his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, and reimpose restrictions on celebrating the old Latin Mass. Francis said he needed to take action because Benedict's 2007 decision to allow freer celebration of the old rite had divided the church and been exploited by conservatives.

"Some wanted me dead," Francis said of his critics.

Speaking with fellow Jesuits in Slovakia in September, Francis confided that he knew his 10-day hospital stay in July for surgery to remove 33 centimeters (about 13 inches) of his large intestine had fueled hope among some conservative Catholics eager for a new pope.

"I know there were even meetings among priests who thought the pope was in worse shape than what was being said," he told the Jesuits, in comments that were later published in the Vatican-approved Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica. "They were preparing the conclave."

That may not have been the case, but if history is any guide, those priests might not have been wrong to have at least discussed the prospect.

Benedict was 85 when he resigned in February 2013, becoming the first pope to step down in 600 years and paving the way for Francis' election. While enjoying robust health at the time, Benedict said he simply didn't have the strength to carry on.

Before him, John Paul II died at age 84 and John Paul I died at 65 after just 33 days on the job. In fact, all 20th-century popes died in their early 80s or younger, with the exception of Pope Leo XIII, who was 93 when he died in 1903.

Early on in his pontificate, Francis predicted a short papacy of two or three years, and credited Benedict with having "opened the door" to future papal retirements.

But the Argentine Jesuit made clear after his July surgery that resigning "didn't even cross my mind."

That is welcome news to Sister Nathalie Becquart, one of the top women at the Vatican. Francis tapped her to help organize the two-year consultation process of Catholics around the globe that will end in 2023 with a meeting of bishops, known as a synod.

Becquart knows well what the pope is up against as he tries to remake the church into a less clerical, more laity-focused institution.

"It's a call to change," she told a conference this week. "And we can say it's not an easy path."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Francis Milestone
Pope Francis celebrated his 85th birthday Friday but still seems to have no plans of stepping down or even slowing down anytime soon. Above, Pope Francis meets migrants during his visit at the Karatepe refugee camp, on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, on December 5, 2021. Alessandra Tarantino/AP Photo