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What If Pope Francis Steps Down? – OpEd

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By Jose Mario Bautista Maximiano*

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(UCA News) — Popes are supposed to run out the clock and just wait for Father Time to come knocking and die in office. Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation in 2013 made some cardinals cry and sent shockwaves across planet Earth.

At the Sala del Concistoro, before the sacred College of Cardinals, Benedict read his intention: “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry … In order to govern the Barque of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strengths of mind and body are necessary … For this reason, with full freedom, I declare that I renounce the ministry of the bishop of Rome, successor of St. Peter …”

That was on Feb. 11, 2013. Today, while Benedict at 95 is slowing down, Pope Francis at 85 decides with the sheer power of the human will, or stubborn determination, to perform his daily pontifical duties.

Our Jesuit pope is maintaining a grueling travel schedule for 2022 and has shown no indication that he plans to slow down this year, apparently telling all of us that he, breathing with one lung since adolescence, is strong and healthy. However, he experiences mobility problems due to sciatica attacks and a very bad knee, forcing him to use a wheelchair.

What actually fuels the speculation about leadership change is Pope Francis’ announced visit to the central Italian city of L’Aquila in August. The basilica in L’Aquila houses the sacred tomb of St. Pope Celestine V, a Benedictine monk who, in 1294, reigned, resigned, fled Rome and went back to his hermitage in the hills of central Italy.

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In 2009, Pope Benedict visited L’Aquila, prayed at Celestine’s tomb and left his own pallium on top of the tomb. Four years later, the German pontiff followed in Celestine’s footsteps and resigned.

Here I am, daring to speculate or, if you wish, to ask a hypothetical question: What if Pope Francis steps down?

The barest truth is that no human leader lives forever. Well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom, if Pope Francis renounces the Petrine ministry, he just has to recite Benedict’s reasons for such a decision.

Should the Church be worried? What we know is that the apostolic succession is built upon a solid rock. Jesus himself named the first pope Peter — the Greek word petros means rock — and solemnly declared, “and upon this rock I shall build my church.”

If Francis resigns, yes, the ultraconservatives will dance on the streets, but the Catholic Church will move on. The Church always does the most logical course of action known as the papal conclave, and she will move on.

Take note that in the entire papal history, from St. Peter to Pope Francis, 196 popes out of 266 were Italians.

But change is coming after the Jesuit pontiff enlarged and globalized much of the composition of the cardinal-electors. With the recent announcement of the creation of 21 new cardinals, six of them from Asia, Francis has de facto loaded the exclusive college with 83 men of his choice with voting rights, and this number increases the chances of a successor who shares his pastoral priorities.

Moreover, our Jesuit pope has already put transparency into the Vatican’s economic sector and finances, skillfully positioning the Holy See as an institution at the service of local churches, not the other way around.

With the apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium in place, he has fulfilled all necessary requirements, almost completely, for a radical reform of the Roman Curia, forging a new path for the pilgrim church. That begs the question of how a curial reform would “change attitudes, not just structures,” which His Holiness himself hopes to happen.

On his flight back to Rome from South Korea in 2014, Pope Francis toyed with the idea of “two or three years and then the House of the Father.”

One year later, he told journalist Sylvia Poggioli: “My pontificate will be short, four or five years, I don’t know, maybe two or three. I feel that the Lord has placed me here for a short time, nothing more.” At that time, was he thinking of death or papal resignation?

For all we know, the future of the pontificate might be a charming prospect for a Netflix sequel entitled The Three Popes. Seriously, though, what really is in the mind of someone who, triumphantly seated at the apex of the powerful Catholic hierarchy and venerated by the world, would decide to abdicate the supposedly lifelong papacy?

Or is it renouncing power when it’s time to renounce it? Indeed, an eternal perplexity for the mundane politician! In Christianity, a true servant leader is appalled by a sky’s-the-limit authority associated with both earthly and heavenly powers while, on the other hand, he believes that the Throne of Peter is meant not for supremacy but for service.

* Jose Mario Bautista Maximiano is the author of ‘Human Life is Beautiful’ (St. Paul’s, 1993) and ‘Spiritual Man: Christian Anthropology’ (St. Paul’s, 1995). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

UCA News

The Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News, UCAN) is the leading independent Catholic news source in Asia. A network of journalists and editors that spans East, South and Southeast Asia, UCA News has for four decades aimed to provide the most accurate and up-to-date news, feature, commentary and analysis, and multimedia content on social, political and religious developments that relate or are of interest to the Catholic Church in Asia.

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