Pope Francis gave a candid midair press briefing to reporters traveling from back from the Middle East to Rome during which he talked about sex, money, and satanic Mass—and retirement.
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.”
According to reporters on the plane, Francis answered 11 questions the Vatican press corps on board agreed on and posed in advance over the course of a briefing that lasted 45 minutes.
He said nothing as startling as he did in his last midair press conference last July when he said “Who am I to judge?” when it came to gays in the priesthood. Francis did announce that, at least going forward, the Vatican now had a “zero tolerance” approach to the priest sex-abuse scandal. He also told reporters that three bishops are under investigation for their roles in the ongoing scandal but stopped short of revealing whether they were under investigation for the cover-up or actual sexual abuse. “In Argentina we call those who receive preferential treatment ‘daddy’s boys,’ he said. “There will be no ‘daddy’s boys’ in this case. It is a very serious problem.”
Francis added that in the coming months he would hold a Mass and meet with half a dozen victims, reportedly, according to the Boston Globe, from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Ireland.
The pope went on to explain that when a priest sexually abuses a child, he not only betrays that child, but he also betrays the Church as a whole. “A priest must guide children towards sainthood. And the child trusts him. But instead, he abuses him or her. This is very serious,” he said. “It’s like celebrating a black Mass. Instead of steering him or her towards the sainthood you create a problem that will stay with him or her for all of his or her life.”
By the time the pope and the press landed, however, survivor groups had already discounted the pope’s promise as one more public relations move. “Again, we should all be crystal clear: none of this changes anything,” said Joelle Casteis, the western regional director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP. “It’s not intended to. It’s intended to promote complacency, and complacency is the enemy of reform. It’s intended to mollify the faithful, not safeguard the vulnerable.”
Casteis says that Francis will be the third pope, after Benedict and John Paul II, to meet with victims. “Ask yourself: Can you cite a single positive outcome of any of these meetings? We can’t.”
The pope also talked about the ongoing issue of financial reform of the Vatican’s once-corrupt financial entities. In what was perhaps the most surprising revelation of his remarks, he confirmed rumors swirling around Rome that the Holy See’s former secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, is indeed being investigated for a discrepancy of around $20 million (€15 million) that somehow made it from the Vatican Bank (known as the Institute for the Works of Religion) to a private television company called Lux Vide under his watch as Benedict’s number two.
“The Lord Jesus once told his disciples: Scandals are inevitable, we are humans and all of us are sinners… Economic administration requires honesty and transparency,” the pope said, according to reporters on the plane. “I would like to say one thing: The question regarding the €15 million is still being looked into; it is not yet clear what happened.”
The pope also took a question about priest celibacy after 26 women dating priests wrote him a letter essentially asking him for permission to sleep with their priest boyfriends.
“The Catholic Church has married priests in the Eastern rites,” he conceded. “Celibacy is not a dogma of faith, it is a rule of life that I appreciate a great deal and I believe it is a gift for the Church. The door is always open given that it is not a dogma of faith.”
Less than 12 hours after he landed, the pope was already on the move again, making a surprise visit to the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome on Tuesday morning to pray to the Virgin Mary after his trip. And he won’t get much rest before his next big event. On June 1, he will preside over a massive open-air Catholic Charismatic Renewal celebration at Rome’s Olympic Stadium in front of a crowd expected to top 50,000. In August he will travel to South Korea. With such a busy schedule, no one can blame the 77-year-old leader of the world’s 1 billion Catholics for at least thinking about retirement from time to time.