Pope Francis, in first autobiography, says he will not choose to retire

VATICAN CITY — He confesses to being “dazzled by a girl” in his youth who made it difficult for him “to pray.” He takes a swipe at the European Union and denounces the U.S. decision to drop atomic bombs as “immoral.” He says he’s no “communist” and chides those who sought to pit him against his predecessor. He has bad news for his critics: He will not voluntarily retire.

In Pope Francis’s first autobiography, which publishes March 19, the first Latin American pontiff offers an up-to-the-minute take on his life and papacy. Written with Italian journalist Fabio Marchese Ragona, who offers a near theatrical setup to each chapter, the book fleshes out the key moments of Francis’s 87 years and amounts to a personal history — and defense — from a pontiff regularly embraced by liberals and pilloried by archconservatives.

What emerges is an unapologetic account from a Catholic leader who balances his role as defender of traditional doctrine with humanism and the distinct perspective of the Global South. In a departure from the ponderous verses of popes, he deploys simple language and open references to his critics. Even the concept of a full papal autobiography is somewhat novel for modern times. Pope Benedict XVI only wrote a memoir when he was still a cardinal, while John Paul 2 wrote a concise history of spirituality to mark 25 years in office.

Francis speaks of being deeply impressed by an atheist, communist colleague in the book, but distances himself from the ideology itself: “After my election as pope, some people claimed I spoke about the poor so often because I was a communist or a Marxist myself,” he writes. He later continues: “Why? Because I don’t wear the papal red shoes! But talking about the poor doesn’t necessarily mean one is a communist.”

Rationalizing his recent decision to allow blessings of same-sex couples, he reiterates his position that such benedictions are not in any way tantamount to marriage. But echoing past statements, written now with the clarity and force of his own pen, he explicitly calls for civil legal rights for same-sex couples in terms remarkable for a Catholic pontiff. He conveys his respect of clerics who disagree with him while insisting it is time “we abandon the rigidity of the past.”

“I have said on many occasions that it is right that [same sex couples] who experience the gift of love should have the same legal protections as everyone else,” Francis writes.

Francis has at times seemed to open the door to retirement, only to later shut it. His is more unequivocal in his book. He says he has no intention of following in the footsteps of Benedict XVI by retiring. Referring to his critics, he says “some people may have hoped that sooner or later, perhaps after a stay in the hospital, I might make an announcement of that kind, but there is no risk of it.” Like all popes, he writes, he has made arrangements in case “a serious physical impediment were to arise.” But “I believe the pope’s ministry is ad vitam, for life, and I therefore see no justification for giving it up.”

Should he ever be forced to hang up the white hat, he says he would eschew the name Benedict choose: “Pope emeritus.”

“As bishop of Rome emeritus, I would move to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to serve as confessor and give Communion to the sick,” he writes.

In perhaps the most compelling part of the book, he talks of being gobsmacked by the retirement of Benedict, an event Francis says he learned about from a journalist.

Francis describes himself as being almost in denial about his rapidly elevating chances of being elected pope at the time of the 2013 conclave. Only a colleague quizzing him about his health tipped him off as to how real his chances were. He describes his unease with the gilded trappings of his office, and decision to reject the finery that came with his office.

He reflects on the delicate balance of managing a church with two popes, and says he encouraged Benedict not to “live out of view,” but to see people and participate in the “life of the church.” In an apparent reference to his conservative critics, he notes that decision did little to limit the ideological and political “disputes” that erupted between him and the “unscrupulous people” who never accepted Benedict’s resignation.

He notes that Benedict, at the time of the transition of power in 2013, was transparent about the troubling state of the Vatican.

“During his handover to me, he gave me a white box containing the dossier, compiled by three cardinals, each over eighty years of age — Julián Herranz Casado, Jozef Tomko, and Salvatore De Giorgi — concerning the leaks of confidential documents that had shaken the Vatican in 2012,” Francis writes. “Benedict showed me the steps he had taken, removing people who were involved with lobbying groups and intervening in cases of corruption, and warned me about other situations in which it would be necessary to take action, telling me clearly that the baton was now being passed to me and it was for me to deal with it.”

Francis hits timely topics, defending his call for rapid action on climate change and decrying the outbreak of conflicts that he calls a dispersed “third world war.”

“Stop the weapons! Stop the bombs! Stop the thirst for power! Stop, in the name of God! Enough, I beg you!” Francis writes.

He writes of historical events — the evil of Nazi Germany and the brutality of World War II — that shaped his faith and life. He tells of almost going to Japan as a Jesuit missionary, and being refused due to his health, while suggesting that he might have lost his life if he had: “Maybe some people in the Vatican would have been happier!”

He evokes a distinctly non-U.S. world view in his assessment of the decision to drop the bombs that ended World War II: “The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is a crime against humanity, against human dignity, and against any possibility of a future in our shared home. It is immoral!”

He addresses an old controversy: that, during the Argentine dirty war, he denounced two leftist priests — the Revs. Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics — to the ruthless, far-right military junta. He calls such accusations “smears,” saying he “warned them” of the risks of their ministry in Bajo Flores slum in Buenos Aires, advised them to leave and offered them safe shelter.

“But they decided to remain with the poor, and in May 1976, they were abducted,” Francis writes. “I did everything in my power to get them freed.”

Somewhat surprisingly, given the growth areas of Catholicism in Africa and Asia, and its shrinkage in Europe, Francis dedicates a full chapter to the “Birth of the European Union,” which he describes as originally “one of the most beautiful ideas ever conceived by political creativity.”

But he goes on to chide some of its members for refusing to help countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece on the front lines of migrant arrivals, describing the lack of cooperation as “suicidal individualism.” He then references a recent trip to Hungary, noting that he hoped his words there inspired Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to embrace “unity” — but then seems to blame the bureaucrats in Brussels for not respecting the “unique features of Hungary” in dealings with its illiberal leader.

He describes how he swore off TV after a program of “an adult nature” popped up in the priest’s lounge of a Jesuit community he was staying at in July 1990. “I vowed never to watch television again. Only very occasionally do I allow myself to watch: for example, when a new president is sworn in, or I watched briefly once when there had been a plane crash.”

In the book, Francis proves himself to be nothing if not Argentine — devoting a short chapter to his native soccer great, the late Diego Maradona and his “hand of God” goal during the run that saw Argentina win the 1986 World Cup. A well-known fan of the San Lorenzo soccer club in his home country, Francis writes that he did not watch the 2022 World Cup due to his loathing of television. But he adds that the game — in which Argentina won on penalties after squandering a lead — was classic of his countrymen.

“At first they are enthusiastic, and then, lacking tenacity, they struggle to reach the end,” he wrote. “We Argentines are like that: We think we have victory in hand, and then, in the second half, we risk losing. And it’s not only in football that we lack tenacity, it’s also in everyday life. Before we bring something to its conclusion, we indulge ourselves a little too much and perhaps don’t achieve the result we hoped for. Fortunately, though, in the end we manage to get through.”

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