Pope Francis has spoken publicly about the prospect of his own death for the first time, giving himself ‘two or three years’ before he meets his maker.
In a press conference aboard his jet as he returned from a trip to South Korea, Francis also mentioned the possibility of retiring from the Papacy if he felt he could no longer perform his duties.
His predecessor, Benedict XVI stepped down last year, an almost-unprecedented move that opened the way for Francis’s accession to the Papal throne.
‘I see it as the generosity of the people of God. I try to think of my sins, my mistakes, not to become proud. Because I know it will last only a short time,’ he said.
Then, apparently light-heartedly, he added: ‘Two or three years and then I’ll be off to the Father’s House.’
While the Pope has not spoken publicly before about when he might die, a Vatican source said he had previously told those close to him that he thought he only had a few years left.
Although the Francis is 77, he has been the most vigorous Pope in years, his energy proving the key to his popularity.
His frank admission may lead commentators to speculate as to whether he has any undisclosed health problems.
At the time of his elevation to the Papacy, reports emerged that Francis had a lung removed when he was a teenager in Argentina after suffering an infection.
But today Francis only admitted that he had ‘some nerve problems’, which required treatment.
‘Must treat them well, these nerves, give them mate (an Argentine stimulant tea) every day,’ he joked.
‘One of these neuroses, is that I’m too much of a homebody,’ he added, recalling that the last time he’d taken a holiday outside of his native Argentina was ‘with the Jesuit community in 1975’.
Resigning the papacy, as his predecessor Benedict XVI did last year, was also a possibility ‘even if it does not appeal to some theologians’, Francis told reporters.
He added that 60 years ago it was practically unheard of for Catholic bishops to retire, but nowadays it was common.
As the jet traveled through Chinese airspace, Francis also addressed the issues surrounding the Catholic Church in that country, which refuses to allow Catholics to officially recognize the spiritual leadership of the Vatican.
Since the communist revolution, Catholicism, like all religions, has been permitted to operate only under the supervision of the State Administration for Religious Affairs.
Clergy who resisted this have been subject to oppression, including long imprisonments, torture and even martyrdom.
Pope Francis told reporters he wants dialogue with China and the only thing he asks in return is for the Catholic Church to be able to operate freely.
The pope told reporters the church ‘only asks to have freedom to do its work. No other conditions.’
‘The Holy See is open to all contacts,’ he said. ‘Because it has true esteem for the Chinese people.’