In an unusual display of macabre, Pope Francis directly addressed the question of his own mortality on Monday, laying out a short timeline for his death and raising practical and theological questions around when — or even if — a pope should resign.
While answering a question from a French journalist earlier this week about the pontiff’s soaring popularity, Francis let slip an unexpected personal detail: he doesn’t think he’s long for this world.
“I try to think of my sins, my mistakes, not to become proud,” Francis said, according to the Catholic News Agency’s transcript of the conversation. “Because I know it will last only a short time. Two or three years and then I’ll be off to the Father’s house.”
Francis went on to reaffirm his support for then-85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI’s historic decision to step down from the papacy in 2013 — the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years. Francis then hinted that he, too, might retire early.
“Our lives are getting longer and at a certain age there is not the capacity to govern well, because the body tires and health perhaps is good but there is the capacity to carry forward all of the problems like those in the governance of the church,” Francis said, speaking of Benedict’s retirement. “I think that Pope Benedict made this gesture of popes emeritus. I repeat that maybe some theologian would say this isn’t just, but I think like this. The centuries will tell if it’s like this or not, we’ll see, but if you can to say to me, ‘but do you think that one day if you don’t feel like it, will you go on?’ But, I would do the same.”
To be sure, Francis, now 77, has reason to be concerned about his health. While he doesn’t appear to be struggling with any particular illness at the moment, he does only have one full lung, making him more susceptible to diseases like pneumonia. His age also appeared to catch up with him earlier this summer, when he canceled some events because he found his busy schedule too taxing. But while Francis’ comments will likely spark discussion about his personal wellbeing, they also evoke important questions about the older men who often end up as pope. After all, why are so many popes older? More importantly, why do most stay in office until they die, and should they?
To the first question, the advanced age of most popes is largely a reflection of the applicant pool. Although technically any Catholic male is eligible for the papacy, popes almost always come from the ranks of the College of Cardinals — mainly because they are the only ones eligible to vote for the next pontiff. For example, the youngest possible candidate for the papacy in the current College of Cardinals (Cardinals over 80 are prohibited from voting) is Baselios Cleemis, a 55-year-old Indian bishop. While it’s technically feasible for Cleemis to be elected pope were Francis to retire, it takes time to build the necessary clout required to win over his fellow bishops — something that, amidst the deeply traditional leadership structure that is Catholic church, usually accrues with age. Granted, there are instances of younger popes with lengthy tenures — Pius IX, who was 54 when elected, served for over 31 years. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule: according to Jim Davenport, who runs the data visualization blog “If We Assume,” a pope’s reign is usually only about 7.3 years on average, with a median of 6 years. By comparison, Davenport noted that the average tenure of a Supreme Court justice is 16.4 years.
Still, even if popes tend to enter into their position older, why do so many live out their last days as head of the church instead of retiring, like Benedict did? For many, the oft-cited theological rationale behind this practice is usually a combination of tradition (i.e., “the guy before me did it till he died, so I guess I will too”) and a desire to emulate St. Peter, Jesus’ disciple who Catholics traditionally consider the first pope. Peter is said to have died as a martyr in Rome, dramatically closing out his life while still serving as the spiritual head of the church. Thus, some popes believe they are expected to “suffer” as Peter — and, of course, Jesus Christ — suffered, an idea Pope Benedict once seemingly applied to the creaking ailments that typically accompany age, saying, “I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.”
But theology — at least good theology — is always deeply connected to context, and context changes over time. A lot has happened in the 2,000-ish years since the early days of the church, with Christianity — and more specifically Catholicism — morphing in ways that have dramatically altered and expanded the role of the papacy several times over. Saint Peter’s world was very different from our own, as he mostly spent his days desperately trying to shepherd a small, early version of Christianity through the gauntlet that was oppressive Roman rule. By contrast, today’s Catholicism is one of the single largest organized religious groups in the world, boasting over a billion followers spread across every corner of the globe. There are now entire nations, such as Argentina, with majority-Catholic populations, forcing modern popes to grapple with the incalculable number of cultural, political, and theological challenges that impact Catholics in literally every country on earth. The sheer amount of decision-making can be daunting, with popes being called to weigh in on massive geopolitical struggles such as the Cold War, climate change, or the ongoing conflict in Iraq. And while the expectation of constant travel might be exciting for younger popes like John Paul II — who made a staggering 104 global trips during his 27 years as pope — it can be exhausting for a 70-plus bishop such as Francis. Pope Benedict essentially said as much when he first announced his intention to step down from the papacy in February 2013:
“…In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me,” Benedict said.
Francis has also acknowledged the tough physicality of being pope, saying in June, ”my work can be unhealthy.” To be sure, while Benedict’s retirement was certainly unusual, he wasn’t the first to do so; at least four other popes have left the papacy before they died, albeit for various reasons often unrelated to age. And the decision to retire doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on the retiree — rescinding power takes a special kind of courage, and is often far more difficult than the decision to take up power in the first place. This is why, in political culture, so many revere the example George Washington, who stepped down after two terms as President of the United States instead of gripping tightly to most powerful position in the country. The idea is also part of the argument around term limits for Supreme Court justices (six of whom, incidentally, are currently Roman Catholics). And most importantly for Catholics, it’s also arguably the precedent set by Jesus Christ, a man who, according to many Christian theologians, was a God become human, who willingly let himself die at the hands of humanity — and then forgave all of them — instead of rule them with an iron fist.
Even St. Peter, the first pope, knew of the limitations of the human condition. When caught napping by Jesus in the biblical book of Matthew, he was scolded for his weakness, with Jesus saying, “…The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Thus, ultimately, modern popes such as Francis are confronted with a curious ethical and theological choice: does the personal need to embody Christ-like suffering trump the ever-growing needs of a vibrant, constantly-changing church? Francis, it seems, sees a Christ-like humility in Benedict’s willingness to choose the church over personal power, and if his comments on Monday are to be believed, it looks like he might make the same choice — whether he lives 3 more years or, God-willing, many, many more than that.