Pope Francis has visited his predecessor Benedict XVI as the Vatican said that the 95-year-old former pope’s health worsened on Wednesday morning.
Francis described Benedict as being “very sick” during a general audience at the Vatican earlier in the day. He urged the faithful to ask God “to comfort and support” the retired pontiff.
Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni attributed Benedict’s condition to his advanced age, without providing further details. “The situation is under control for the moment,” Bruni said.
“The situation is certainly very serious,” said long-time companion and theologian Wolfgang Beinert. “But for a man who is approaching 100, it is not surprising.”
Benedict biographer Peter Seewald rated the latest reports as “certainly very worrying” in an interview with dpa. Benedict himself had been longing for his “going home” for a long time, he said.
Benedict’s long-time companion and personal assistant Georg Gänswein has not responded to inquiries.
Archbishop Gänswein has helped to look after Benedict for years at the Mater Ecclesiae (Mother of the Church) Monastery at the Vatican.
Experts, confidants and believers have puzzled over how bad the 95-year-old’s health really is in light of the latest announcements.
His health began deteriorating before Christmas Day, according to a report by the Italian news agency ANSA.
Breathing problems had already set in ahead of the December 25 holiday, ANSA reported, citing well-informed sources.
There was no comment on this from the Vatican.
It has been known for a long time that Benedict is physically weak and finds it very difficult to speak. “Stable in weakness” is how Gänswein has previously described his physical condition.
Mentally, however, Benedict was still fit, it was often said. He also received visitors at irregular intervals. At the beginning of December, for example, Benedict received this year’s winners of the Ratzinger Prize, which The Ratzinger Foundation, also known as The Pope Benedict XVI Foundation, awards to theologians and scientists on behalf of the pope emeritus.
The statement by Francis – who is known for his often spontaneous comments – at the very end of the general audience on Wednesday set alarm bells ringing however. He went to see Benedict after the general audience.
Vatican experts were divided over whether Francis really meant that Benedict was seriously ill or whether he perhaps just wanted to say that he was very weak in general due to old age.
It is not unusual for him to visit his predecessor in the monastery at Christmas. In a tweet, Francis later repeated the request to pray for Benedict. However, the fact that he was “very ill” was no longer in the post.
Independently, other clergy also called for prayers for Benedict. “I join Pope Francis’ call to prayer,” said Georg Bätzing, president of the German Bishops’ Conference.
“My thoughts are with the pope emeritus. I call on the faithful in Germany to pray for Benedict XVI,” the bishop of Limburg added to dpa.
The Italian Bishops’ Conference also joined Francis’ call for prayer: “In this moment of suffering and trial, we gather around the pope emeritus,” said its head Archbishop of Bologna Cardinal Matteo Zuppi.
Archbishop of Munich and Freising Reinhard Marx said on Wednesday morning that he was aware of the news about Benedict’s condition. “But for us, we are united in prayer.” He said he last saw Benedict, one of Marx’s predecessors, in person in September.
The Bavarian-born pope, whose original name is Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, was elected John Paul II’s successor on April 19, 2005.
The eighth German to become pope in the 2,000-year-old history of Catholicism, and the second non-Italian in nearly 500 years, Ratzinger chose the name Benedict in honour of St Benedict, the 5th century founder of European monasticism.
Benedict said he had never aspired to become the leader of the Catholic Church. The shy intellectual had trouble connecting with the faithful, especially coming after the charismatic speaker John Paul II.
Before his pontificate, Benedict had for years been prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, making him the supreme guardian of Catholic doctrine.
Benedict’s time as pope will be remembered with coinciding with the church plunging into one of its most serious crises, as decades of child abuse and cover-ups exploded into the light starting in 2010.
He resigned on February 28, 2013, the first pope in nearly 600 years to take such action. That cleared the way for the election of his Argentinian successor Francis.
Since then, he has lived in relative seclusion at the monastery.