Did Pope Francis offer a salute to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, or something more? Earlier today, as Vatican Radio reported, the pontiff offered a special salute to the “true shepherd” who “knows how to step down from his church … rather than leave in a partial manner.” The head of the Catholic Church hailed St. Paul at Ephesus as the model of a true shepherd, including the disposition to “step down” when necessary.
“A shepherd must be ready to step down completely from his church, rather than leave in a partial manner” said the Pope.
His words were drawn from the first reading at Mass, where St Paul addressed the church leaders in Ephesus. The Pope said that this reading could easily be called “A bishop’s leave taking” because Paul has left the Church of Ephesus in order to go to Jerusalem, where the Holy Spirit called him to go.
“All shepherds have to step down. There comes a moment where the Lord says ‘go to another place, come here, go there, come to me.’ And it’s one of the steps that a shepherd must take; be prepared to step down in the correct way, not still hanging on to his position. The shepherd who doesn’t learn how to do this because he still has some links with his sheep that are not good, links that are not purified by the Cross of Jesus” said Pope Francis.
As veteran Vaticanista and Wall Street Journal reporter Francis X. Rocca noted on Twitter, this has the appearance of prophecy, or at least a signal:
Pope Francis is our day's premier practitioner of the Delphic utterance https://t.co/RCBf0gy4ow
— Francis X. Rocca (@FrancisXRocca) May 30, 2017
But a signal to whom, and about what? If it’s a signal about the wisdom of papal retirements, that won’t necessarily be a surprise. Almost from the beginning of his pontificate four years ago, Francis has openly suggested that he might follow Benedict’s example and step down rather than be carried out of the Vatican. Just fourteen months after his election, Francis discussed the possibility in a press conference:
After a grueling but ultimately successful three-day visit to one of the most complicated regions on the planet, the idea of retirement probably sounded pretty good to Francis. So it is no surprise that when reporters traveling with him on the papal plane asked if he would consider resigning like his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, he said he wouldn’t rule it out.
“I will do what the Lord tells me to do. Pray and try to follow God’s will. Benedict XVI no longer had the strength and honestly, as a man of faith, humble as he is, he took this decision,” Francis said, according to a transcript of his press conference published in La Stampa’s Vatican Insider. “Seventy years ago, popes emeritus didn’t exist. What will happen with popes emeritus? We need to look at Benedict XVI as an institution, he opened a door, that of the popes emeritus. The door is open, whether there will be others, only God knows. I believe that if a bishop of Rome feels he is losing his strength, he must ask himself the same questions Pope Benedict XVI did.”
A year later, Francis told a Mexican media outlet that he figured his pontificate would last no more than four or five years, or perhaps shorter than that. Benedict had “opened a door” for his successors, and Francis didn’t sound shy about walking through it if he felt called to do so:
Francis told interviewer Valentina Alazraki that he had “the feeling that my pontificate will be brief: four or five years; I do not know, even two or three. Two have already passed. He added, “Maybe it’s like the psychology of the gambler who convinces himself he will lose so he won’t be disappointed and if he wins, is happy. I do not know. But I feel that the Lord has placed me here for a short time, and nothing more.”
He was also asked if he thought it would become normal for popes to retire, as his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, did, rather than serve until their deaths, as has been the custom. Francis replied that he believes Benedict “opened a door”:
[“]In general I think what Benedict so courageously did was to open the door to the Popes Emeritus. Benedict should not be considered an exception, but an institution. Maybe he will be the only one for a long time, maybe he will not be the only one. But an institutional door has been opened. Today the Pope Emeritus is no longer a rarity since a door for him to exist as a figure has been opened.[“]
We’re now at four years and two months, and Pope Francis appears hale and hearty. He just wrapped up a delicate mission to Egypt with much success, and is about to travel to South Sudan. He does not appear to be slowing down at all, but he did turn 80 in December, and might be more aware than ever of the advancing age of his pontificate. Either that or his photo ops with world leaders could have him longing for green pastures, and …. who could really blame him for that?
Another interpretation of this would be that the pontiff was sending a signal to other bishops and cardinals to take stock in themselves. Each diocese is referred to as a “church” in itself, and the role of bishops as shepherds is put into symbolic display with their croziers. However, bishops and cardinals already have mandatory retirement ages (75 and 80 respectively), with papal authority refusing retirements when desired, so that problem resolves itself eventually anyway. Besides, the pope also has the authority to dismiss and reassign bishops whose performance might call into question their abilities to serve their churches. Still, it presumably helps when those shepherds conclude on their own that it’s time to hang up the crozier, and that could have been Francis’ point.
Of course, the answer could be much more straightforward. Francis might have just intended to interpret today’s scripture reading from Acts 20:17-27 as any priest celebrating Mass. Given his earlier statements, however, this homily certainly seems to be a reminder that Francis sees retirement as a real possibility, and that the time for him to hear a call to “go to another place” may be sooner rather than later.