Pope Francis’ revelation that he has “the feeling” that his papacy will be a short one has caused deep concern among many people worldwide, especially among the overwhelming majority of Catholics who worry what might happen to the radical reform and renewal of the church that he has started.
The concern first emerged in August 2014 after the pope’s press conference on the flight back from Korea, when he said he thinks his pontificate “isn’t going to last long.”
It surfaced on a more global scale on the second anniversary of his election, when he told Mexico’s Televisa network that he felt his pontificate would last four or five years, or less.
His repeated affirmation that his papacy will be short has raised many questions. The three main ones are: Has he some serious illness? Is he engaged in a political calculus to push through the reform he wants in the church? Does he plan to resign at 80, as some whisper in Rome?
To answer such questions, it’s necessary to understand the context in which Francis spoke and what he actually said.
Let’s begin with the airborne press conference on Aug. 18, 2014. A reporter for Radio France, Anaïs Fuga, recalling the ovations the pope received in Rio, asked, “How do you handle this immense popularity? How do you deal with it?” After confessing he didn’t know what to say, Francis went on to thank God that “His people are happy” and said he felt “the people’s generosity.” But, he added, “interiorly...I try to think about my sins and my mistakes, lest I have any illusions, since I realize that this is not going to last long...two or three years, and then...off to the house of the Father.”
When Elisabetta Piqué (my wife)interviewed him for La Nación last December, she told him that after his airborne revelation “many people were worried about your health; they thought you might not be well.” She asked: “How are you?” He responded: “I do have some aches and pains, and at my age ailments don’t go unnoticed. But I am in God’s hands. Up to now I have been able to maintain a rhythm of work that is more or less good.”
Then in March, Televisa’s Valentina Alazraki returned to his “short papacy” remark and asked, “Why do we have the sensation that you look like someone in a hurry by your way of acting?” and “Why does it seem that you envisage a short pontificate? Why do you repeatedly say these things?”
His answer: “I have the feeling that my pontificate will be brief: four or five years; I don’t know, even two or three. Two have already passed! It’s a somewhat vague sensation. Maybe it’s like the psychology of a gambler who convinces himself he’ll lose so he won’t be disappointed, and if he wins he’s happy. But I feel that the Lord has placed me here for a short time... It’s a feeling. For this reason, I always leave the possibility open.“
On all three occasions, his answers were spontaneous, not part of a political calculus. He’s like that. He speaks from the heart. He confirmed that his health is reasonably good given his age, but said he has this inner feeling about a brief pontificate.
He told Televisa that he’s not in favor of setting a statutory age (80) for popes to resign because “the papacy is something of a final instance. It’s a special grace.” Setting a retirement age “creates the sensation of the end of a pontificate. That wouldn’t do good, it would be predictable.” He said he shares “Benedict’s idea,” but avoided committing himself to follow suit. “Benedict has opened the door to emeritus popes. One cannot consider Benedict as an exception, but as an institution.... Maybe he will be the only one for some time, or maybe he will not be the only one.”
In actual fact, Francis is a realist. He read the history of the popes in 1991, before becoming a bishop. He knows that 48 of his 265 predecessors were popes for less than one year, 73 others for less than five years and 64 more for less than 10 years.
In this context it is worth recalling that when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope at the age of 78 in the 2005 conclave, he said he took the name Benedict because the last pope with that same name had “a short pontificate.” And yet he was pope for almost eight years until he resigned just before his 86th birthday.
Francis was elected pope at 76. He is now 78; and, as he stated in a recent interview with young people from a Buenos Aires shanty town, “My life is in the hands of God.”