Pope Francis: No Lifelong Positions in the Church

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Pope Francis reignited speculation about papal retirement policy Friday when he suggested that all leadership roles in the Church need a finite term.

“The only one who is indispensable is the Holy Spirit, and no one is Lord, except Jesus Christ,” Francis said to a group of 30,000 people at an inter-denominational rally of charismatic Christians in St. Peter’s Square.

“It is appropriate that all services in the Church have a time limit,” he said. “Leaders for life happen in countries under a dictatorship.”

“Believing yourself to be indispensable is a great temptation for leaders, and it comes from the devil,” said Francis. “Authoritarianism and personalism easily enter in when leaders desire to hold onto their position forever” and “one slides from being a servant to being a master,” he said.

The 78-year-old Pontiff has said on other occasions that he would be prepared to resign instead of ruling for life if he felt he could not continue running the 1.2 billion-member Church for health or other reasons.

Pope Benedict XVI, Francis’s immediate predecessor, became the first pope to resign in 600 years when he stepped down in February 2013, and earlier this year, Francis said that what Benedict did “opened the door to emeritus popes.”

He added that Benedict’s decision “should not be considered an exception, but an institution.”

“Nowadays an emeritus pope is not a strange thing, but it opened the door for this to exist,” he said.

Francis also said, however, that he did not like the idea of an automatic retirement age for popes, for example at age 80.

The Pope took advantage of Friday’s meeting to request prayers for Christian unity. “Unity in diversity” and “in the name of the same baptism that we have received” is key, the Pope said, since divisions among Christians “are a counter-witness.”

Recalling the twenty-three Egyptian Coptic Christians killed in Libya by ISIS, Francis said, “They are our martyrs; and if the enemy unites us in death, who are we to divide ourselves in life? There are differences, but let’s leave them aside. Let’s move forward with what unites us; that is enough,” he said.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.