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Pope’s ministry is for life, says Francis

Papież Franciszek przed modlitwą Anioł Pański w Watykanie


Isabella H. de Carvalho - published on 02/20/23

In Pope Francis’ exchanges with the Jesuits in the DRC and South Sudan, he said that resigning is not on his agenda.

In two meetings with members of his own spiritual family, the Society of Jesus, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in South Sudan, Pope Francis again dispelled any rumors of a possible impending resignation.

Both question-and-answer sessions were held during the Pontiff’s recent trip to the two African countries at the beginning of February. The text of the transcription was published in the Italian Jesuit magazine, La Civiltà Cattolica, on February 18, 2023. 

“I believe that the pope’s ministry is ad vitam [for life]. I see no reason why it should not be so,” Francis explained as he responded to a question by a Congolese priest. “I for the moment do not have that on my agenda.” 

Benedict XVI’s “courage” isn’t a “fashion” 

Pope Francis praised Benedict XVI’s “courage” in deciding to resign due to the state of his health, but emphasized that “resigning popes” should not become “a ‘fashion'” or “a normal thing.” 

“Think that the ministry of the great patriarchs is always for life,” the Argentine Pontiff said, while underlining that “historical tradition is important.” 

“If, on the other hand, we are listening to the ‘chatter,’ well, then we should change popes every six months!” Francis said, joking about the rumors surrounding his resignation, which cyclically intensify within the Vatican and the Church. 

A resignation letter is ready in case of a health impediment 

In his responses to the Jesuits’ questions, Pope Francis also recalled that he wrote a resignation letter two months after he was elected in 2013 and gave it to the then Secretary of State. The letter allows for his resignation if he develops health issues that would prevent him from exercising his ministry. The Pontiff had already mentioned this in an interview with Spanish media outlet ABC, published in December 2022.  

“Pius XII also wrote a letter of resignation because of fear that Hitler would take him to Germany. That way, he said, they would only capture Eugenio Pacelli and not the pope,” Francis explained. 

Asked about whether the role of Superior General of the Society of Jesus should also be for life, Pope Francis responded affirmatively saying he was “conservative” on this issue. He said that, like for the ministry of the papacy, he understands resignations for health reasons. However, he emphasized that “life-long generalship” also helps “avoid electoral calculations, factions, [and] chatter.” 

Bishop Emeritus

While the Pope’s latest statements seem to make a possible resignation sound less likely, last July, responding to a question about the possibility of setting out rules regarding the figure of a pope emeritus, Pope Francis contended that “history itself will help to regulate better.”

“The first experience went very well,” he said, because Benedict XVI “is a holy and discreet man.”

For the future, Francis added, “it would be better to define things or explain them better.”

Talking about his own possible resignation, Pope Francis replied that he would not return to Argentina.

“I am the Bishop of Rome. In that case I would be the bishop emeritus of Rome,” he said.

Not the only one

In an interview just two years into his papacy, he insisted that Benedict’s resignation had set a tone for the Church, establishing a precedent similar to that of bishops of dioceses other than Rome, where a bishop emeritus is common. “Some 70 years ago, we didn’t have bishops emeritus and now we have 1,400,” he said.

“I think what Pope Benedict did was open a door,” Francis said. “I think that what Benedict did with a lot of courage was open the door to popes emeritus.”

Benedict shouldn’t be considered an exception, Francis went on to say. Even if he was the first to resign in many centuries, he won’t be the only one.

Pope Benedict XVIPope FrancisVatican
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