Estimated reading time 2 minutes 2 Min

Popes are for life, quitting should be rare: Francis

In a shift from previous remarks, Pope Francis has insisted that a pontiff’s ministry should be for life and opting to retire shouldn’t become the norm.

February 17, 2023
By Philip Pullella
17 February 2023

Pontiffs resigning instead of ruling for life should not become a “fashion” in the Roman Catholic Church and happen only in truly exceptional circumstances, Pope Francis says.

The comments, made in private conversations with fellow Jesuits during his recent trip to Democratic Republic of Congo, were a shift away from previous remarks in which Francis said that longer life spans and medical improvements could make retired popes an institution in the church.

La Stampa newspaper published the comments on Thursday in an article by Father Antonio Spadaro, a Rome-based Jesuit priest who attends the meetings and writes about them afterwards with the pope’s permission.

On February 2 in Kinshasa, Francis was asked about media reports that he could resign.

He repeated a comment first made to a Spanish newspaper in December that several months after his election in 2013 he gave a Vatican official a resignation letter to be used in case one day he suffered a severe medical condition that would leave him permanently unconscious and unable to make decisions.

“This does not, however, in any way mean that popes retiring should become, let’s say, a fashion, a normal thing,” he said.

“I believe that the papal ministry should be for life. I don’t see a reason why it should not be this way … historic tradition is important. If instead we listen to gossip, then we would have to change popes every six months,” he said.

In 2013, Pope Benedict, citing frail physical and mental health, became the first pontiff to resign in 600 years.

He lived for nearly 10 more years, and, according to top aides, remained lucid until a few days before his death last December 31.

Benedict continued writing and received visitors, who sometimes disclosed what he said, feeding a conservative, nostalgic Catholic faction unhappy with Francis’ papacy.

His nearly 10 years as pope emeritus were one of the most divisive periods in modern Church history. 

Although Francis often compared having Benedict living in the Vatican to having a grandfather in the house, a book by Benedict’s closest aide exposed strains while two men wearing white lived in the tiny city-state.

In his conversation with the African Jesuits this month Francis said his own resignation for health reasons “is not on my agenda for the moment”.

More in Top Stories