Pope Francis Had Already Retired When He Was Elected

“This is what I want, a poor Church for the poor.” —Pope Francis

In A Nutshell

Pope Francis is the most popular pope in living memory, a global figure nearly everyone agrees is awesome and a huge boon to the Catholic Church. But his election was far from a certain thing. At the point when his predecessor stepped down, Francis (then Jorge Mario Bergoglio) had already sent his letter of retirement to the Vatican—in keeping with the edict that cardinals must hang up their cloth at 75.

The Whole Bushel

Since his election earlier this year, Pope Francis has become the new mega-star of world religions. The Catholic Church’s answer to the Dalai Lama, Francis is instantly recognizable, already known for his down-to-Earth saintliness and love of the poor and currently drawing crowds four times the size of his predecessor. But things were nearly very different for the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio: In the months before Benedict XVI stepped down, he’d already been forced to retire.

Half a century ago, Pope Paul VI had decided to put an upper limit on the age of cardinals. Reasoning that 75 was old enough, he issued an edict making it Vatican law that all cardinals must hang up their cloth at that point. Fast-forward to December 2012 and the future Pope Francis had reached the cutoff point. According to TIME’s portrait of him for their “Person of the Year” feature, he sent his letter in early 2013 and sat back to await official acknowledgement. Friends said he seemed like a spent force, a man almost fading away, destined to spend the rest of his days in a spartan retirement home in his native Argentina.

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We all know what happened next: Out of the blue, Benedict XVI became the first pope to retire in 600 years, prompting the election of Francis and a global shift in the direction of Catholicism. But it’s impossible to stress how unlikely this was. Francis wasn’t thought to be in the running for Pope, and would likely have never been elected if Benedict XVI had held out a little longer. Instead of being on the cover of TIME, he’d be a retired old man in Argentina, waiting to shuffle off this mortal coil and into the Kingdom of God. How close did this come to being reality? It’s hard to say, but had Benedict tarried even another six months, it seems unlikely we’d be having this discussion now.

Show Me The Proof

TIME‘s Person of the Year 2013: Pope Francis, The People’s Pope
Vatican Insider: The position of bishops who do not want to retire
Featured image photo credit: Thierry Ehrmann