Who Wants the Pope to Die?

COMMENTARY: Thankfully there have been few public expressions of this morbid sentiment during the current papacy, in contrast to the situation during the papacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Pope Francis celebrates the opening Mass for the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon region, in St. Peter's Basilica, Oct. 6, 2019.
Pope Francis celebrates the opening Mass for the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon region, in St. Peter's Basilica, Oct. 6, 2019. (photo: Riccardo De Luca / Shutterstock)

November is the month to pray for the dead, and the Holy Father leads by example. Pope Francis offered Mass Nov. 4 in St. Peter’s for all the cardinals and bishops who died this past year.

Earlier in the week were the All Souls Day prayers at the papal tombs beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s one of the more poignant appointments on the papal calendar, the quiet visits, the silent prayers, the solitary pope. As he makes his way from tomb to tomb, the thought must inevitably occur to the reigning pontiff that he is passing now in life where he will lie in death. 

This year the visit to pontifical graves invited another, more disturbing, question: Who wants Pope Francis to die?

The Holy Father suggested that there are at least some. Meeting with Jesuits in Slovakia last September, he responded to a question about his health after colon surgery earlier in the summer.

“Still alive, even though some people wanted me to die,” Pope Francis said. 

Which is an odd and dark thing to say. Are there people who wish him to die? And how would Pope Francis know that? 

It’s not the sort of thing anyone would say to his face, God forbid. Perhaps nuncios overhear such things and file it in their reports. Perhaps someone lurks in the shadier corners of the internet and lets the Holy Father know what is being said.

Yet it is not something that one readily encounters in the light of the broader media. Damian Thompson, who does not attempt to hide his hostility to the person and program of Pope Francis, reported in The Spectator that an unnamed priest at a dinner where “drink had been taken” blurted out that “I hope he drops dead tonight.”

So there is that unnamed drunk priest. But as far as prominent voices publicly yearning for an early demise, there are none such. 

Unlike in the past. 

It may have been, given the Jesuit context of the Holy Father’s remark, that he was thinking about how some Jesuits used to talk about St. John Paul II. 

Recall that on the day of the assassination attempt in 1981, Jesuit Father Cyril Barrett, “in a bellow that filled a London restaurant” said of the would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca: “The only thing wrong with that bloody Turk was that he couldn’t shoot straight.”

Far from a drunken priest anonymously quoted, Father Barrett was sober, voluble and vicious. Were the Jesuits mortified by this call for mortal injury? To the contrary, a Jesuit publication included that anecdote when Father Barrett died in 2004, as the sort of apparently adorable, if rascally, detail that spices up an obituary. 

The late Jesuit Father Paul Mankowski wrote in 2005 that “before ordination I’d heard my Jesuit professors pray that Wojtyła come to an early death — and go unrebuked, or rebuked in that jocular vein that signals sympathy.”

So it may be that Pope Francis does not really know that some people want him to die, but assumes from his Jesuit experience that if some in the Society wanted John Paul to die and were relatively open about it, there must also be some people who wish the same ill for him.

Perhaps, but it may not be accurate to generalize from one religious order to the entire Church — or the world. In the world, there were certainly those who wanted John Paul to die. And not just crackpots and malcontents, but the most fashionable of the fashionable. 

Conor Cruise O’Brien — celebrated as Ireland’s greatest 20th-century man of the letters — was invited to deliver the prestigious Massey Lectures in Toronto in 1994. He included in the usually erudite lectures a ferocious attack on John Paul, allowing that he “abhors” him and for whose death he admitted to praying daily. In the intellectually elite circles that O’Brien moved in, his open hatred of John Paul was no obstacle to innumerable awards and honors.

Another public intellectual of enormous influence, Christopher Hitchens, felt about Benedict XVI the way O’Brien felt about John Paul, though Hitchens, being an atheist, did not pray for Benedict’s demise. When diagnosed with cancer in 2010 (he died in December 2011), he wrote a typically scintillating essay for the uber-chic Vanity Fair, in which he bemoaned that his death would deny him the pleasure of watching those he hated die:

I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read — if not indeed write — the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? 

Hitchens died in highest public esteem. Fervent laudations went up from salons on both sides of the Atlantic. All this for a man who likened the joy of seeing Benedict die to the joy of seeing his children married.

There is no equivalent of O’Brien or Hitchens for Pope Francis. No one feted in the halls of power and affluence mentions that he wishes that the Pope would die.

Pope Francis, as all the regular surveys tell us, enjoys the goodwill and favor of ordinary Catholics, as every pope does. Quite unlike the experience of John Paul or Benedict, he is highly popular with the heads of the Big Tech giants who regularly visit him, the international Davos elite, which considers him an ally on climate and immigration, the U.N. leadership, which welcomes his support for its global agenda, to say nothing of the international media consensus, which praises him as a courageous reformer updating the Church in order to better conform to the 21st century. Indeed, there has never been a pope so popular with the wealthy and influential — both without the Church and within, if one considers the immensely rich German bishops.

So are there people who want the Pope to die? It’s a big Church and a bigger world, so perhaps they can be found. Yet it seems that the opposite is true. Pope Francis enjoys goodwill far beyond the usual sources of papal support. Few seem to desire that he join his predecessors in the Vatican crypt anytime soon.

 

  

Pope Francis conferred on Catholics the lay ministries of catechist and lector at a Mass for the Sunday of the Word of God on Jan. 23.

Pope Francis: The Word of God Rekindles Hope

Pope Francis celebrated Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica for the fourth-annual Sunday of the Word of God, during which he, for the first time, formally conferred upon lay Catholics the ministries of lector and catechist.