Pope Francis’s rollicking plane ride home: Rule of celibate priests ‘always open’ to change

 

Even for a pope widely recognized as ebullient and spry, the three-day trip to the Holy Land must have been exhausting. It included helicopter rides, hand-kissing, tomb visits, gentle diplomacy that may boost peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis, and even an argument with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over what language Jesus spoke.

So when Francis finally climbed aboard his plane Monday night to return to Rome, a Vatican spokesman told reporters to keep the questions short. The pope had to rest.

But 77-year-old Francis, looking alert, was having none of that. And in what turned into one of the more freewheeling exchanges of Francis’s 15 months as pontiff, he took an hour of questions that touched on sexual assault victims, celibate priests and whether he had plans for retirement. Both the candor and the impromptu nature with which he responded are likely to expand his growing reputation as the most tolerant, iconoclastic pope of the past 40 years.

The church has “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse: Francis revealed that the Vatican is investigating three bishops for abuse-related crimes against minors. He said he is planning on meeting a half-dozen sexual assault victims early next month, the first time he has done so.

“There will be no preferential treatment when it comes to child abuse,” he said, adding that one of the bishops under investigation has already been convicted. “It is a very serious problem. When a priest commits abuse, he betrays the Lord’s body. A priest must guide children toward sainthood. And the child trusts him. But instead, he abuses him or her. This is very serious. It’s like celebrating a black mass.”

His gestures to presidents Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas had been “spontaneous.” In a surprising diplomatic gambit, Francis asked the Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Sunday to travel to the Vatican next month to pray together. And even more surprisingly, both men accepted, rekindling hopes for resuming peace talks that collapsed last month.

Francis was asked how it happened.  

“The most genuine gestures are those which are made spontaneously,” he said, according to Vatican Insider. “I had thought something could be done but none of the concrete gestures I made [were] conceived that way. Some things, like the invitation to the two presidents we had thought of doing there…. In the end, the invitation was accepted, and I hope the meeting will go well. But my gestures were not pre-planned. I just do what comes to me spontaneously.”

Global capitalism is an “inhuman economic system.” Far-right parties made huge gains in the recent European Parliament elections, which many analysts say are a manifestation of unemployment, immigration and mounting disillusionment with the European Union model of governance.

“We have a global economic system that is centered on money, not [on the] human person,” he said. “This system discards things. It discards children…. It discards the elderly…. And young people are discarded too…. There is an entire generation of people that is not studying or working. This culture of waste is very serious…. It is an inhumane economic system.”

Priestly celibacy “is not a dogma of faith.” Last week, the pope got a letter. It was from a group of priests’ girlfriends. They pleaded with him to strike down rules prohibiting priests from marriage and sex. “Each of us is in, was or would like to start a relationship with a priest we are in love with,” the women wrote in the letter.

What did the pope think? “The Catholic Church has married priests in the Eastern rites,” he said. “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.”

“The door is open” for retirement one day: Francis is 77. He has only one lung. Will he retire like Pope Benedict XVI before him?

“Seventy years ago, popes emeritus didn’t exist,” he said. “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.”

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Pope Francis prayed at Jerusalem's Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial on Monday, during the third leg of his trip to the Middle East. (AP)
Terrence McCoy writes on foreign affairs for The Washington Post's Morning Mix. Follow him on Twitter here.
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