Pope Francis said his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI was “very ill” and asked the faithful to pray for the retired pontiff for God’s comfort “until the end”.

Francis did not give details of Benedict’s condition when he made the surprise call at the end of his general audience.

Benedict, 95, became the first pope in some 600 years to step down in 2013, with the former pontiff taking the title of pope emeritus.

Since then he has lived in the Vatican.

“I would like to ask you all a special prayer for Pope Emeritus Benedict, who silently supports the church,” Pope Francis said in his address.

“I remind you that he is very ill.

“Let us ask the Lord to comfort him and support him in this testimony of love to the church until the end.”

It was unclear if he was talking about Benedict’s health in general or if his predecessor had an illness.

A Vatican spokesman, when asked about Benedict’s condition, said the press office was seeking details.

Benedict has become increasingly frail in recent years as he dedicates his life after the papacy to prayer and meditation.

Some cardinals and canon lawyers have questioned Benedict XVI’s decisions on retirement, including his decision to continue wearing the white cassock of the papacy.

Another point of contention was that Benedict XVI refused to revert to his birth name Joseph Ratzinger.

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Critics say these choices and the continued presence of Benedict XVI in the Vatican have caused confusion for Catholics and threaten the unity of the Church.

Traditionalists were able to use Benoît as a conservative reference when they were unhappy with Francis’ decisions, they say.

Benoît resigned in 2013 due to his “deteriorating” health.

In his letter of resignation, he states: “After having examined my conscience on several occasions before God, I have acquired the certainty that my forces, due to an advanced age, are no longer adapted to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry”.

Pope Francis asked for prayers for Benedict days after calling for an end to the “senseless” war in Ukraine.

In his 10th Christmas blessing, he said people should look beyond the “superficial twinkles of the holidays” and help the homeless, immigrants, refugees and the poor.

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