The Hidden Scandals Surrounding Pope Francis – and the Battle to Succeed Him

The cardinals are already meeting to discuss who should be the next pope. Some of the liberal ones, who feel safe because they’re in favour with the ailing Pope Francis, can be seen comparing notes in a bar near the gates of the Vatican. The conservative cardinals are more nervous: they gather at suppers in each other’s apartments or — if they can trust the fawning waiters not to betray them — in a favourite restaurant.

Perhaps you can see the flash of a bishop’s ring as he taps a piece of gossip into WhatsApp; the Holy See employs world-class electronic spies, so everyone uses a private phone rather than the Vatican-issued ones. Even the phone-tappers are busy exchanging information, because like everybody in Rome they suspect that the painfully fragile Francis — who is often too short of breath to read out his own sermons — hasn’t got long to go.

They are just guessing, of course. The Pope is secretive about his health, and two years ago he bounced back from major surgery on his colon that was assumed to be advanced cancer. Even so, he’s 87, the oldest pope for more than a century, and a conclave can’t be too far off.

Ludwig Ring-Eifel of the German news agency KNA said in January that seeing the Pope so short of breath at a press conference at which he was too ill to answer prepared questions was “a difficult moment for me … and you can tell that this situation has also affected many colleagues emotionally”. At the beginning of March, Andrew Napolitano, a retired Superior Court judge from New Jersey, was staying in the papal guest house behind St Peter’s. “The Pope is in poor health, can barely speak or walk; and he radiates sadness,” he reported. “I don’t think he’ll be there much longer.”

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