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Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 16, 2023
Pope Francis holds hands and prays with a dozen Jesuits working in South Sudan during a meeting Feb. 4, 2023, in Juba. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis has dismissed the idea that he could soon resign and stated clearly for the first time, “I believe that the pope’s ministry is ad vitam [for life]. I see no reason why it should not be so.” He added that it should not become “a fashion, a normal thing” for popes to resign.

He made this highly significant statement in conversation with the Jesuit community in the Democratic Republic of the Congo when he met them at the nunciature in Kinshasa on Feb. 2.

He did so in response to a question from a Congolese Jesuit who said: “There has been talk of your possible resignation. Are you really intent on leaving the Petrine ministry? What about the General of the Society? In your opinion, should his post remain for life?”

Pope Francis replied first to the part of the question regarding the papacy and said:

Look, it’s true that I wrote my resignation [notice] two months after I was elected and delivered this letter to Cardinal Bertone. I don’t know where this letter is. I did it in case I had some health problem that would prevent me from exercising my ministry and I am not fully conscious and able to resign. However, this does not at all mean that resigning popes should become, let’s say, a “fashion,” a normal thing. 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,” the pope said. “I believe that the pope’s ministry is ad vitam [for life]. I see no reason why it should not be so. [I] think that the ministry of the great patriarchs is always for life! And the historical tradition is important. If, on the other hand, we are listening to the ‘chatter,’ well, then we should change popes every six months!”

Pope Francis: “I believe that the pope’s ministry is ad vitam [for life]. I see no reason why it should not be so.” 

When Francis met the Jesuit community in Juba, South Sudan, another Jesuit also asked if he was considering resignation. Francis replied: “No, it has not crossed my mind!”

He reminded his audience that “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.” He did not mention the fact that several of his predecessors had written similar letters of resignation, including Paul VI.

Responding to the second part of the question from the Congolese Jesuit about whether the superior general of the Jesuits should remain in his post for life, the first Jesuit pope replied:

About the Society of Jesus: yes, on this I am “conservative.” It has to be for life. But, of course, the same question arises as about the pope. Father [Peter Hans] Kolvenbach and Father [Adolfo] Nicolás, the last two generals, resigned for health reasons. It seems to me important to remember as well that one reason for the life-long generalship in the Society also arises to avoid electoral calculations, factions, chatter.

Another Jesuit in Kinshasa asked “what prompted” him to accept being made bishop, cardinal and pope given that as “a professed Jesuit you had taken a vow not to seek roles of authority in the church?”

Francis replied, “When I made that vow, I meant it.” He revealed that when the nuncio in Argentina first proposed to him to be auxiliary bishop of San Miguel, “I did not accept.” He said he was asked a second time to be bishop of an area in northern Argentina, in the province of Corrientes and “to encourage me to accept” the nuncio “told me that there were the ruins of the Jesuit past there.” Francis said, “I replied that I did not want to be guardian of the ruins, and I refused.” He confirmed that he had refused both requests “because of the vow I made.”

“It seems to me important to remember as well that one reason for the life-long generalship in the Society also arises to avoid electoral calculations, factions, chatter.”

He revealed, however, that when the nuncio approached him a third time to ask him to be an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires, “he came, already with the authorization signed by the superior general, Father Kolvenbach, who had agreed to my accepting.” Francis said, “Therefore I accepted in a spirit of obedience.” Francis was later appointed coadjutor archbishop of Buenos Aires and in 2001 was made cardinal.

As for accepting to be pope, he recalled what he had already made known. “In the last conclave, I came with a small briefcase to return immediately to the diocese,” he said, “but I had to stay.”

He concluded, “I believe in the Jesuit distinctiveness about this vow, and I did my best not to accept the episcopate.”

In answer to another question along the same lines, Francis added: “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.”

In his conversations with the Jesuits in Kinshasa, Francis spoke about the conflicts in the world today, not only in the D.R.C. and South Sudan but also in Yemen, Myanmar, Latin America and Ukraine, and said: “The whole world is at war…. I ask myself: Will humanity have the courage, the strength or even the opportunity to turn back? It goes forward, forward, forward to the abyss. I don’t know: That’s a question I ask myself. I’m sorry to say this, but I’m a bit pessimistic.”

“The whole world is at war…. I ask myself: Will humanity have the courage, the strength or even the opportunity to turn back?”

“Today it really seems that the main problem is the production of weapons,” the pope said. “There is still so much hunger in the world, and we continue to manufacture armaments. It is difficult to come back from this catastrophe. And we are not talking about atomic weapons!” But, he added, “I still believe in the work of persuasion. We Christians have to pray a lot, ‘Lord, have mercy on us!’”

He said he is particularly struck “by the cruelty” in these conflicts, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ukraine. “Not only is there killing, but it is being done cruelly. This is something new to me. It gives me pause for thought.”

Responding to another Congolese Jesuit, who asked if he would call a synod for the Congo Basin like he did for Amazonia, Francis said “no.”

“The synod on the Amazon was exemplary,” he said. “Four ‘dreams’ were discussed there: social, cultural, ecological and ecclesial.” He said that those dreams “also apply to the Congo Basin” because “there is a similarity. The planetary balance also depends on the health of the Amazon and the Congo biomes.” He encouraged the Congolese bishops’ conference “to engage synodically at the local level with the same criteria but in order to pursue a discourse more related to the reality of the country.”

Asked by another Congolese Jesuit how the church is preparing for the 1,700th anniversary of the First Council of Nicaea in 2025, Pope Francis said that he and Patriarch Bartholomew, the first among equals in the Orthodox Church, “are preparing a meeting for 2025” and “we want to come to an agreement for the date of Easter, which just happens to be the same date for both churches in that year. Let’s see; if so we can agree for the future.”

“We want to celebrate this Council as brothers,” the pope said. “We are preparing for it.” He recalled that Bartholomew “was the first Patriarch after so many centuries to come to the inauguration of a pope’s ministry!”

In his conversations with the Jesuits, Francis talked about many other things, including that he had approved the four “universal apostolic preferences that the Society has developed” as a way forward for the Jesuits in this moment in history. He also talked about progress in the beatification of Pedro Arrupe, S.J., and his own prayer life.

A report on the conversations between Pope Francis and the Jesuits in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in South Sudan was published by the Jesuit journal La Civilità Cattolica in various languages, including English, today, Feb. 16. Its editor, Antonio Spadaro S.J., was part of the papal entourage and recorded both conversations.

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