Even before Pope Benedict emerged this week for the first time using a cane in public, as he walked to board his plane at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport en route to Mexico, rumors of his retirement were flying.
The Italian daily newspaper “Libero” reported last fall that the pope was thinking of resigning from the papacy in Spring 2012, when he turns 85. Journalist Antonio Socci, writing in the same newspaper, confirmed that prediction.
In October 2011, when Pope Benedict first used the wheeled platform that had aided the infirm Pope John Paul II to process up the long central aisle at St. Peter’s Basilica, the whisperers emerged in force, forecasting an imminent end to the Benedict papacy. Italian journalist and Vatican expert Andrea Tornielli reported at that time that the pope is suffering from a degenerative condition in the joints of his legs, and that he finds walking painful.
One can argue that Pope Benedict himself fueled the rumors, when he spoke candidly in his interview with journalist Peter Seewald—an interview which was reported in the book Luce del mondo (Light of the World). Asked about the possibility of retirement, Pope Benedict said, “When a Pope arrives at a clear awareness that he no longer has the physical, mental, or psychological capacity to carry out the task that has been entrusted to him, then he has the right, and in some cases, even the duty to resign.” In the same interview, Pope Benedict worried whether he would be able to “withstand it all, just from the physical point of view.”
But here we are: It’s Spring of 2012. Pope Benedict has embarked on a trip to Mexico and Cuba. Already planned for this year are papal visits to Monaco and Ukraine. There is a possible (but uncertain) trip to Ireland in June for the 50th International Eucharistic Congress. In October of this year, the Pope’s hectic schedule will include the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization (October 7-28). And October 11, 2012 will mark a trifold celebration: the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the 20th Anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the opening of the Year of Faith.
Given all of the wild speculation regarding the impending close of Benedict XVI’s papacy, I thought I’d cite just a few of the well known persons—both historical figures and contemporary celebrities—who have been pictured using a cane, with absolutely no intent to retire.
Cane Fanciers in History
Voltaire. François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher, used a cane. He also wrote in “Candide” of the protagonist’s receiving 40 blows of a cane. (Interesting for today’s discussion in the public square, Voltaire was a strong proponent of religious liberty, and of the separation of church and state.)
Frederick Law Olmsted. American journalist, social critic, public administrator, and landscape designer whose projects included New York’s Central Park and Prospect Park; Mount Royal Park in Montreal, Quebec; the Biltmore Estate near Asheville, North Carolina; Detroit’s river island Belle Isle, and many others. A painting of Olmsted by John Singer Sargent hangs in the Biltmore mansion.
Diamond Jim Brady. James Buchanan “Diamond Jim” Brady was an American businessman, financier and philanthropist. Besides his wealth, Diamond Jim was known for his enormous appetite; perhaps that’s why he needed the cane!
Oscar Wilde. Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde used an ivory handled walking cane with an inset amethyst cabochon and gilt metal collar. At the top were the initials “O.W.” with an inscription “C33”—a reference to his cell number in Reading Gaol, where he was imprisoned for two years in Block C, Floor 3, Cell 3.
John Muir. Scottish-born American naturalist and preservationist, Muir was the founder of the Sierra Club. Through his efforts, much of the national parkland in the American West was preserved: Yosemite Valley, Sequoia National Park, and more. Raised in a devout home, Muir memorized three-quarters of the Old Testament and all of the New Testament. He saw Nature as a great teacher, reflecting the mind of God; and he believed himself to be a kind of “John the Baptist,” whose duty was to immerse as many as possible in what he called the ‘mountain baptism’ of nature. John Muir’s walking stick would have been a great help to him as he traversed the mountainous landscape of the West.
Crown Prince Hirohito. Hirohito was posthumously in Japan officially called Emperor Shōwa. He ruled during the era of the Second World War; but he disapproved of research into creating an atomic bomb, believing that use of such a weapon would mean the end of mankind. He is pictured as a young man in Oxford in 1921, using a walking stick.