Benedict's death paves way for Francis' retirement

STORY: As mourners paid their respects to the late former Pope Benedict, who died on Saturday (December 31), questions surfaced about how long his successor Pope Francis would continue leading the Catholic Church.

In 2013, Benedict became the first pontiff in 600 years to step down instead of reign for life.

But if the current Pope had even considered doing the same, he previously faced one major obstacle.

Benedict remained in retirement in the Vatican - which would have made it "virtually impossible", says Reuters' Vatican analyst Philip Pullella:

“It was already very complicated having two men wearing white in the Vatican. If Pope Francis had resigned when Benedict was still alive we would have had two former popes and one reigning pope. It was already very difficult for many people, for many Catholics, to have such a situation where there were two people wearing white in the Vatican, a former pope and a reigning pope. The presence of Benedict in the Vatican did create some problems.

…Conservative Catholics saw him as a symbol of the kind of Church that they wanted to return to, a more traditional Church. Now that Benedict is no longer with us Francis, as he gets older, will have no obstacle to resigning.”

Not only has Benedict’s death made decisions easier for Francis and the Church, it could prompt the current pontiff to review how future popes conclude their reigns - either in old age or in death.

Francis is now 86, one year older than Benedict when he retired – but he shows no signs of slowing down, says Philip Pullella:

"If anybody thinks that Francis is going to be retiring anytime soon they are mistaken… the papacy of Francis is entering a new phase, perhaps the final phase, but we don't know how long that phase will last."

However, Francis has made it clear he would not hesitate to step down if his health impeded him from leading the 1.3 billion-member Catholic Church.