POPE FRANCIS ON “STEPPING DOWN”: WHAT DID HE SAY? WHAT DID HE MEAN?
A Vatican media report on Pope Francis’ homily at his Tuesday morning Mass in the chapel of the Santa Marta residence ended with his words about “stepping down” from the ministry of Bishop of Rome, aka the Petrine ministry. (vaticanmedia photo)
As was noted, Pope Francis focused his reflections on the day’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles where Paul, “compelled by the Holy Spirit,” takes his leave from the Church Elders at Ephesus to go to Jerusalem. “It’s a decisive move,” said Francis, “a move that reaches the heart, it’s also a move that shows us the pathway for every bishop when it’ time to take his leave and step down.”
Pope Francis, summarized the report, noted how the Apostle made an examination of his conscience, telling the Elders what he had done for the community and leaving them to judge his work. Paul seemed “a bit proud,” said the Pope, but in actual fact “he is objective.” He only boasts about two things: “his own sins and the Cross of Jesus Christ which saved him.”
Describing how Paul feels “compelled by the Holy Spirit” to go to Jerusalem, Pope Francis said: “This experience by the bishop, the bishop who can discern the Spirit, who can discern when it is the Spirit of God speaking to him and who knows how to defend himself when spoken to by the spirit of the world.”
Turning to Paul’s farewell words, Pope Francis noted how Paul takes his leave amidst the pain of those present by giving them advice in a testament that is not a worldly testament “about leaving belongings to this person or that person.”
Paul’s great love, said the Pope, “is Jesus Christ. His second love is for his flock. Take care of each other and of the entire flock. Keep watch over the flock: you are bishops for your flock, to take care of it and not in order to advance your ecclesiastical career.”
The Holy Father, noting how Paul entrusted the Elders to God, knowing that He will take care of them, stressed that the Apostle spoke of having no desire to have any money or gold for himself. He described Paul’s testament as “a witness, as well as an announcement and a challenge.” Paul had nothing to leave to others, “only the grace of God, his apostolic courage, Jesus Christ’s revelation and the salvation that Our Lord had granted him.”
Then the words that have everyone asking: What did Pope Francis mean?
“When I read this, I think about myself, because I am a bishop and I must take my leave and step down. I ask the Lord for the grace to be able to take my leave like this. And in my examination of conscience I will not emerge victorious as Paul who … But the Lord is good, he is merciful, but … I think of the bishops, of all the bishops. May the Lord give grace to all of us to be able to take our leave this way, with this spirit, with this strength, with this love of Jesus Christ, with this trust in the Holy Spirit.”
End of homily, start of commentary:
Often in his five-year papacy, Francis has spoken about having “a brief pontificate” without ever explaining those words. Did he have a health problem none of us knew about? Did he wish to reform the Roman Curia – a hot topic during the pre-conclave meetings of cardinals in March 2013 – and then step down, hoping to do so in a couple of years? Was he starting to feel his 81 years? Did he simply choose a length of time he would be Pope – say 5 or 6 years – and not tell anyone?
The Pope was never clear about why he thought his papacy would be “brief.”
If you look at his words at Tuesday’s Mass, it seems like a pretty factual statement: “When I read this, I think about myself, because I am a bishop and I must take my leave and step down.”
To explain a legal point: Residential bishops and archbishops (be they cardinals or not) are required by Church law to step down from their ministry at age 75. Their letter of resignation to the Holy Father almost always bears the date of their 75th birthday. Such resignations are not always accepted immediately. If the prelate in question is active, vibrant, in good health, is still an effective, passionate leader, he may be asked to stay on – or he stays on until the Pope officially accepts his resignation. The Pope – who is the bishop of Rome – has always been the exception to that rule.
Back to the papal statement: Note that he did not say “I am a bishop and I must eventually take my leave and step down.” He said, “…..I must take my leave and step down.”
Once again, a papal statement leaves us mystified, yearning for clarity, wanting an answer.
Personally, I cannot believe Pope Francis would step down at the same time there is another Pope emeritus.
I am fairly sure that everyone in the media, and those of you reading this column and other reports, will be watching every word that Francis utters from now on about a “brief papacy” or “stepping down” or his future plans. He does have a fair amount of future plans, by the way: his June 21 trip to Geneva for the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches, the August World meeting of Families in Dublin, the October synod on youth and vocations, the 2019 World Youth Day in Panama, to name but a few.
And guess what question visiting bishops and cardinals will be asking the Pope!
PS: Were any of his words a sign to some of Chile’s bishops – whom he met Tuesday afternoon – that they should think of “stepping down”?