Pope Francis
Pope Francis has heightened speculation that he might step downGetty

The Pope has boosted ongoing speculation that he might step down from his role early. His statements came during a Maundy Thursday mass at St Peter's Basilica in Rome, during which priests renewed their ordination vows.

In his homily, the Pope said that God understood the demands that come with the priests' task of ministering to the faithful. "We experience this in so many ways: from the ordinary fatigue brought on by our daily apostolate to the weariness of sickness, death and even martyrdom, " he said.

"We experience this in so many ways: from the ordinary fatigue brought on by our daily apostolate to the weariness of sickness, death and even martyrdom," he said.

"Do you know how often I think about this weariness which all of you experience? I think about it and I pray about it, often, especially when I am tired myself. I pray for you as you labour amid the people of God entrusted to your care, many of you in lonely and dangerous places. Our weariness, dear priests, is like incense which silently rises up to heaven."

Pope's future in question

The hints in the homily follow on from reports that his doctors have advised him to lose weight and his indications in a TV interview in February that he expects his pontificate to be brief. During that

During that interview, Pope Francis stated that he believed that God had placed him into the papacy "for something short".

He has also commented favourably on the resignation of Pope Benedict, the previous Pontiff. In an interview with Mexican TV he said his predecessor had "shown great courage".

Pope Francis, 78, wears orthopaedic shoes and has problems walking long distances. He is also missing part of a lung as a result of a childhood illness.

However, Saverio Gaeta, deputy editor of the religious journal Credere ("Belief"), said that it was difficult to interpret the Pope's remarks.

Of the Pope's statements during yesterday's homily Gaeta said: "Everyone is free to interpret his words as they like, but I think they were intended as an encouragement for his fellow priests."