VATICAN CITY: Former pope Benedict, a hero to conservative Catholics and who in 2013 became the first pontiff in 600 years to step down, is “very sick”, his successor Pope Francis said on Wednesday, asking Church members to pray for him.

Bishops from Europe, the United States and beyond, urged the faithful to keep Benedict in their thoughts, after the Vatican followed Pope Francis’s announcement with a statement saying Benedict had suffered a sudden “worsening” of his health.

“I would like to ask all of you for a special prayer for Pope Emeritus Benedict, who, in silence, is sustaining the Church,” Francis said in Wednesday’s surprise announcement made at the end of his weekly general audience.

“Let us remember him. He is very sick, asking the Lord to console and sustain him in this witness of love for the Church, until the end,” Francis said, speaking in Italian.

The Vatican statement said Benedict was receiving constant medical attention and his condition was under control.

Francis, who visited the former pontiff after making the announcement, has often praised Benedict, saying it was like having a grandfather at home. But the presence of two men dressed in white in the Vatican has at times been troublesome.

Conservatives have looked to the former pope as their standard bearer and some ultra-traditionalists even refused to acknowledge Francis as a legitimate pontiff.

They have criticised Francis for his more welcoming approach to gays and to Catholics who divorced and remarried outside the Church, saying both were undermining traditional values.

Catholic Church leaders from Germany, Britain, the United States and elsewhere urged the faithful on social media to join prayers for Benedict, who was pope for almost eight years before he retired in 2013.

Published in Dawn, December 29th, 2022

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