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ROME – Pope Francis revealed a slightly wary take on papal resignations in a candid conversation with his fellow Jesuits during a recent trip to Africa, saying he believes the papacy is for life and that stepping down should not become a habit in Catholicism.
The pope was in Africa Jan. 31-Feb. 5, visiting both the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. He was originally supposed to make the trip last summer but was unable to do so due to his ongoing knee troubles.
During the trip, he met privately with Jesuits serving in both the DRC and South Sudan. In each meeting, he was asked about his thoughts on papal resignation and whether he was considering it himself, and in each meeting, he said no.
Speaking to 82 Jesuits gathered for his Feb. 2 meeting in Kinshasa, Francis said, as he has in past interviews, that he wrote a letter of resignation two months after his March 2013 election and gave it to his then-secretary of state, Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, in case his health ever prevented him from exercising his office and he wasn’t fully conscious to resign in that moment.
“However, this does not at all mean that resigning popes should become, let’s say, a ‘fashion,’ a normal thing,” he said.
Pointing to his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who made history in 2013 when he became the first pope to resign the papacy in 600 years, Pope Francis said Benedict “had the courage to do it because he did not feel up to continuing due to his health.”
“I for the moment do not have that on my agenda,” he said, voicing his belief that “the pope’s ministry is ad vitam (for life). I see no reason why it should not be so.”
“Historical tradition is important. If, on the other hand, we are listening to the ‘chatter,’ well, then we should change popes every six months!” he said.
Francis said he also believes the appointment of the head of the Jesuit order, the Father General, should be for life. Traditonally a lifelong appointment, this has changed in recent years, with the past two Jesuit Father Generals stepping down voluntarily.
“On this I am ‘conservative.’ It has to be for life,” he said.
He reiterated the point on papal resignation to the Jesuits in South Sudan, saying the thought of resigning “has not crossed my mind,” despite previous statements that he would resign if he ever felt that it was the right decision.
In his conversation with the Jesuits in the DRC, the pope also lamented the many conflicts raging throughout the world and again condemned the global arms trade, saying he is “pessimistic” about whether humanity will ever “have the courage, the strength or even the opportunity to turn back.”
He also responded to a question for plans marking the 1,700th anniversary of the First Council of Nicaea in 2025, saying preparations are underway for a gathering with Orthodox leaders at the Vatican that year, which coincides with the Jubilee of Hope, and that he and Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople are trying “to come to an agreement for the date of Easter,” which for Catholics and Orthodox happens to fall on the same day that year.
Francis also revealed, when asked about his decision to accept hierarchal appointments despite the Jesuits’ pledge not to seek positions of authority, that he refused two prior episcopal appointments, as an auxiliary bishop of San Miguel, in Argentina, and then as bishop of a diocese in the northern Argentine province of Corrientes, before finally accepting position as auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires.
He said he believes in the Jesuit commitment to avoid positions of power, and said he himself tried to avoid the episcopate but accepted it out of obedience, as the appointment as auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires came from the papal nuncio and was accompanied by a letter of permission to accept from the Jesuit Father General at the time.
Despite this commitment made by Jesuits, Pope Francis himself has named several Jesuit cardinals who are seen as close allies: Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxemburg and general relator of the Synod of Bishops; Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, who heads the Vatican Dicastery for Integral Human Development; Peruvian Cardinal Pedro Barreto of Huancayo; and Spanish Cardinal Luis Ladaria, head of the Vatican Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Francis has also appointed a slew of Jesuits as archbishops and bishops.
Speaking to the DRC Jesuits, he said appointing a member of the order as a bishop or archbishop “depends solely on the needs of the church,” and that while he firmly backs this commitment, “if it serves the good of the Church, then the latter good prevails.”
Two days later, on Feb. 4, while visiting the South Sudanese capital of Juba, the pope met with 11 Jesuits working in South Sudan, during which he listened and answered questions.
In that meeting, he voiced concern over the modern “pagan culture,” saying that “Pagan values today matter more and more: money, reputation, power.”
“We must be aware that the world is immersed in a pagan culture that has its own idols and gods,” such as money, power, and fame, he said, but cautioned that “Today ours is also a pagan culture of war, where what counts is how many weapons you have. These are all forms of paganism.”
Christians also fall prey to this mindset, he said, saying, “let’s not be so naive as to think that Christian culture is the culture of a united party, where all gather together in order to be strong. In that way the Church would be a political party.”
“No! Instead, Christian culture is the ability to interpret, discern and live the Christian message that our paganism does not want to understand, does not want to accept,” he said, saying the demands of living the Christian life are often seen as “a form of extremism.”
Urging his fellow Jesuits to move away from the temptations of this pagan culture, Francis said another modern manifestation of paganism is “the outward formalism of going to Mass on Sunday exclusively because one has to, that is, without soul, without faith.”
He also decried the exploitation of the African continent and stressed the need for good and intelligent politicians “who make their countries grow. Politicians who do not allow themselves to be distorted by corruption.”
Pope Francis also denied allegations that postponed his Africa trip last year but kept his appointment to visit Canada just a few weeks later as a bow to the wealthy, saying those who believe that are “ill-thinking” and that he went to Canada “to console the abused and to make peace with the indigenous people who were victims of the school system in which the Church was involved.”
“But as soon as it was possible, I came (to Africa),” he said, and stressed the need to be courageous and tender pastors who are close to their people and the many in the country who suffer.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen