Will There Soon Be Three Living Popes?

Pope Francis said he would definitely consider stepping down, saying his predecessor has opened the door to retiring.

Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

ROME, Italy — On the papal plane returning to Rome from an official state visit to South Korea—just hours before learning that his nephew in Argentina was involved in a fatal car accident that killed his wife and two young sons, ages two years and eight months, respectively—popular Pope Francis joked with reporters that he knew his time on earth was short and said that he would definitely consider retiring, opening the door to the possibility that the Vatican could be home to three living popes.

There is little doubt by now that Francis has the gift of gab, and while he may be the bane of his public relations team’s existence with his off-the-cuff remarks, he definitely says just what’s on his mind. And so it was on Monday, when the pope addressed reporters traveling with him home to Vatican City.

When asked how he was dealing with his immense popularity, the pope said he keeps himself balanced by focusing on his sins and his mortality.

“I try to think of my sins, my mistakes, so as not to think that I am somebody,” he said, according to the official transcript of the remarks published by the Vatican press office. “Because I know this will last a short time, two or three years, and then to the house of the Father.” The pope then smiled and whistled, and pointed up to heaven.

The comments, interpreted by some as a premonition to his death, were apparently made in jest, and, according to the pope’s official spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, were not an announcement of any sort of terminal illness or “known malady.”

His comments that followed may be far more telling. When asked if he would retire like his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, he said yes, without a doubt, repeating similar remarks he made in May on a papal trip to the Middle East.

“I think that the emeritus pope is already an institution because our life gets longer and at a certain age there isn’t the capacity to govern well because the body gets tired, and maybe one’s health is good but there isn’t the capacity to carry forward all the problems of a government like that of the Church,” he said. “But you could say to me, if you at some time felt you could not go forward, I would do the same! I would do the same. I would pray, but I would do the same. He (Benedict) opened a door that is institutional, not exceptional.”

Francis also laid out a full agenda for all he hoped to do before he could possibly contemplate his retirement, including a number of state trips. He expressed interest in visiting China any time the offer was made and confirmed his much anticipated trip to the United States. “Next year I would like to go to Philadelphia, for the meeting of the families,” he said. “Then, I have been invited by the President of the United States to the American Congress. And also the Secretary General of the United Nations has also invited me to the Secretariat of the U.N. in New York. So maybe the three cities together. Then there’s Mexico. The Mexicans want me to go to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, so we could take advantage of that too (during the US visit), but it’s not certain.”

Francis told reporters that he has not had a true vacation since 1975 when he went to Buenos Aires with the Jesuit community. The rest of the time he generally has staycations, relaxing at home.

“I have just taken holidays, at home, as I usually do once I read a book. It was quite interesting, its title was Rejoice That You Are Neurotic. I too have some neuroses. But one should treat the neuroses well. Give them some mate [herbal drink] every day. One of the neuroses is that I am too attached to life. “ And for the pope’s many millions of supporters who would like to see him stay at the helm of the Catholic Church a little bit longer, that is the best news yet.