Pope returns from hospital ready for Holy Week, beyond

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Pope Francis gives his homily at Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 2, 2023. (CNS photo/Chris Warde-Jones)

Following Pope Francis’ sudden hospitalization with bronchitis, discussion has intensified about the state of his health. This is understandable, given that the bishop of Rome is 86 years old and has kept up an intense schedule of pastoral initiatives, foreign travel and meetings for the past decade.

The pope has bounced back from his latest health scare and was presiding at the liturgies of Holy Week after being discharged from Gemelli Hospital. Francis has been remarkably open about his health, which is new for the Vatican, where papal health matters are a sensitive topic about which spokesmen remain tight-lipped. In 2019, the pope sat down with Nelson Castro, an Argentinian journalist friend and doctor, for a book about the health of popes. 

Nevertheless, two “myths” about the pope’s health need to be debunked. The first is that Francis has a missing lung or one that doesn’t work.

It is true that, at 21, Jorge Bergoglio had an operation removing part of his right lung after developing a serious infection. But Francis told Castro that he made a “complete recovery,” and he believes the part of the lung that had been removed has grown back. At 79, the pope visited La Paz in Bolivia, which is located at a high altitude and therefore makes it harder for the body to absorb oxygen, and he had no problems with altitude sickness.

The second myth is that the pope is suffering from a terminal health condition, a claim that started to circulate in summer 2021, after Francis had an operation to remove part of his colon. Some in Rome claimed the pope had cancer.

“Doctors didn’t tell me,” Francis said jokingly when asked about this claim. He dismissed the rumors as “court gossip.”

The pope is generally in good health for someone of his age. He talked with Castro about his struggles with severe back pain caused by sciatica, which is linked to a weakness in his vertebral column. Francis receives regular physical therapy to treat the condition.

For almost a year, the pope has been using a wheelchair due to severe pain in his knee, although this has been gradually improving and he can walk for short distances.

The pope has also talked about mental health challenges, including anxiety. Francis says he has various ways to keep this under control, such as listening to Bach, and he makes sure he is not anxious when making important decisions.

As a Jesuit provincial, he survived the military dictatorship in Argentina, and during that period, at 42, he saw a psychoanalyst for six months of weekly sessions. 

Despite being open about his health, Francis wants to avoid a dramatic or obsessive focus on the topic.

“Ask the doctors, I don’t understand much,” he told reporters who asked him about his recent health issue. He is willing to embrace physical vulnerability, which meant his hospital stay offered some memorable images for this year’s Holy Week.

The day before he was discharged, Francis visited the children’s cancer ward in Gemelli carrying gifts of rosaries, chocolate eggs and copies of a book about the birth of Jesus. While there, he baptized little Miguel Angel, who is just a few weeks old.

As he left the hospital, the pope was approached by a couple whose 5-year-old daughter, Angelica, died the night before. Francis was seen comforting the distraught parents, praying with them and offering words of comfort.

It was a powerful image of a church of compassion with an elderly pope helping a devastated couple carry their cross. In the coming months, Francis will likely need more assistance carrying his.

“Our mission today is to help you carry this cross and not to increase its weight,” Cardinal Arthur Roche, prefect of the Holy See’s liturgy office, said during last August’s consistory when the pope created new cardinals. It was a strong message to those in senior positions in the church. 

With synodal reforms, more trips abroad and new appointments to senior positions in the Roman Curia to be made, the pope has plenty still to do. The two synod meetings of the world’s bishops are scheduled for October 2023 and October 2024; Francis will likely want to attend both.

Although he would step down if an ailment made it impossible for him to continue, Francis has said the papacy is a role “for life.” He will not be pressured about his future and wants to keep going. For whatever time he has left, this pope will continue to adapt to his health challenges to continue living out the church’s mission.


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