In conversation with Jesuits from the DRC, Pope Francis said he turned down the episcopate twice to respect his vows.
“When I made that vow, I meant it.” This is how Pope Francis responded to a question by a Congolese priest asking what prompted him to accept the episcopate and cardinalate, as Jesuits vow not to “seek roles of authority in the Church.” The Pontiff explained he in fact rejected two episcopate positions before eventually becoming a bishop.
Father Jorge Bergoglio made his final vows in April of 1973, and was not ordained a bishop until almost 20 years later, when he was appointed an auxiliary for Buenos Aires, and ordained June 27, 1992. On February 21, 2001, he was made a cardinal.
During Pope Francis’ visit at the beginning of this February to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to South Sudan, the Pontiff had two question-and-answer sessions with the Society of Jesus’ members in the countries. The responses were published in the Italian Jesuit magazine, La Civiltà Cattolica, on February 18, 2023.
Francis did not want to become a bishop
The Pontiff explained that the papal nuncio proposed to him two bishop positions, when he was still a Jesuit priest in Argentina. The first was to become auxiliary bishop of San Miguel, a suffragan diocese of Buenos Aires, and the second was in a diocese in northern Argentina, in the Corrientes province.
For the second proposal, the papal nuncio tried to encourage the young Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio to accept by telling him there “were the ruins of the Jesuit past there.”
“I replied that I did not want to be guardian of the ruins, and I refused. I refused these two requests because of the vow I made,” Francis told the Congolese priests.
Finally the papal nuncio came back with a third proposal and a signed authorization by the Superior General of the Society of Jesus at the time. Thus, Father Bergoglio became auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires. “I accepted in a spirit of obedience,” Francis said.
The Jesuit vow to serve the Church
The Jesuits take four vows: of poverty, chastity, obedience and of obedience specifically in regard to the pope and the Church’s needs.
“I believe in the Jesuit distinctiveness about this vow, and I did my best not to accept the episcopate,” Pope Francis said, adding that he also came to the 2013 conclave “with a small briefcase,” ready to “return immediately” to his diocese.
“The choice of a Jesuit as bishop depends solely on the need of the Church. I believe in our vow that tends to prevent Jesuits from being bishops, but, if it serves the good of the Church, then the latter good prevails,” Pope Francis said in response to a question about what he expects from Jesuit bishops.
“When the general or provincials know that a Jesuit is being considered for bishop they intervene and know how to ‘defend’ the Society well. […] I believe in the vow, but the needs of the Church prevail,” the Pontiff explained.