The Pope’s enigmatic words on resignation

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 31, 2017

In his homily at Mass on Wednesday morning, commenting on St. Paul’s farewell to the Church at Ephesus, Pope Francis said:

A shepherd must be ready to step down completely from his church, rather than leave in a partial manner….
All shepherds have to step down. There comes a moment where the Lord says ‘go to another place, come here, go there, come to me.’ And it’s one of the steps that a shepherd must take; be prepared to step down in the correct way, not still hanging on to his position. The shepherd who doesn’t learn how to do this because he still has some links with his sheep that are not good, links that are not purified by the Cross of Jesus.

The homily as a whole focused on the role of a bishop, with the Pope insisting that a bishop must recognize that he is not “the center of history,” but a servant of his people and their Lord. Still those words about stepping down—and the emphasis on stepping down completely—caught the attention of many Vatican-watchers. Was Pope Francis speaking in general terms about the proper duties of bishops and pastors? Or did he have something more specific in mind?

If the latter, was he hinting that he might be considering resignation?

Or was he sending an oblique message to Benedict XVI, who seemed to be breaking his silence last week?

I don’t have the answers. But I am not alone in raising the questions.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jun. 04, 2017 9:16 AM ET USA

    I don't want to see Francis resign. I want him to be Catholic first and Jesuit a distant last. Pray that the Holy Spirit will guide him so he can represent Christ to us correctly.

  • Posted by: JDeFauw - Jun. 03, 2017 2:40 PM ET USA

    Directing his homily at Pope Emeritus Benedict? An interesting hypothesis, but just be aware that this is highly speculative.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Jun. 03, 2017 5:59 AM ET USA

    Pope Francis always has ulterior motives, and they are never good for the faithful. It is heartbreaking.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Jun. 03, 2017 1:01 AM ET USA

    Tell ya what, Pope Francis. Since ambiguity is what it is, that is, leaving something open to interpretation, I will consider your comments in the light of the darker side of your personality and interpret them as a veiled threat to Pope Benedict; there is little other reason given to do so NOT. Of course I will also take the potential bright side of your remark and eagerly look forward to your resignation.

  • Posted by: rickt26170 - Jun. 03, 2017 12:52 AM ET USA

    Take Benedict and you'd be right - a no brainer. Benedict has refused to endorse AL and has said good things about Cardinal Sara. Bergoglio is going to think that Benedict isn't feeling "safe" anymore with his successor, and it looks like he's right. And Muller is getting backbone. Is it possible that the JPII-Benedict "empire" is striking back at a Pope that admires atheists and Euro bishops? Hope so.

  • Posted by: grateful1 - Jun. 02, 2017 8:48 PM ET USA

    An "oblique" message to BXVI? It sounded awfully direct to me.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Jun. 02, 2017 5:20 PM ET USA

    Key words: not still hanging on. Francis often speaks obliquely to the pt of incoherence, yet never w/o purpose. Since the Church doesn't have a problem of bishops hanging onto positions, it's reasonable to posit that Francis is expressing a personal fear veiled in a pseudo-rational light as "hanging on". Benedict hasn't hung on. But he has enormous authority that's totally out of this controlling pope's hands. That's the fear. If Benedict says something, Francis can't do anything & he knows it.

  • Posted by: jackbene3651 - Jun. 01, 2017 10:12 PM ET USA

    I see it as a cowardly jab and Pope Benedict. This pope is extremely thin-skinned. Remember the near panic after those posters appeared in Rome? We need more of those posters.

  • Posted by: feedback - May. 31, 2017 8:19 PM ET USA

    My bet would be on message to Benedict XVI who just expressed his support for Cardinal Sarah. And if the message was indeed addressed to Benedict, it would only mean that Card. Sarah's position was near, or on, the chopping block.

  • Posted by: DrJazz - May. 31, 2017 5:59 PM ET USA

    St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians about five years after his farewell to them. Was that a "link with his sheep that [was] not good?"

  • Posted by: shrink - May. 31, 2017 1:41 PM ET USA

    Isn't he referring to Walter Cdl Kasper? On second thought, I forget to take my medications this morning.