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Pope’s health could break his stride on peace visits

By Paddy Agnew
Monsignor Leonardo Sapienza assists Pope Francis during the weekly general audience at the Vatican last Wednesday. Picture by Guglielmo Mangiapane

When the Lebanese Minister for Tourism, Walid Nassar, last Monday confirmed that a proposed visit to Beirut by Pope Francis next month has been postponed, the news inevitably sparked speculation about the 85-year-old Argentine Pope’s health.

In truth, since Francis underwent major colon surgery in Rome’s Gemelli hospital last July, such media speculation has never been far from the surface. The shock news of that unexpected hospitalisation last summer was followed by a springtime when Francis has had to scale down his appointments, essentially because he is now having difficulty walking due to severe pain in his right knee.

That difficulty became an official item in the current pontificate just last week when, for the first time, Francis attended a Vatican audience in a wheelchair. That, in turn, prompted the Irish-American Cardinal, Kevin Farrell, Prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, to comment at a Vatican news conference: “The Pope accepts his limitations in this moment with a great spirit and a great heart... he’s an example to all of us.”

So, then, what happened to traditional Vatican obfuscation and discreet reserve on papal health matters? There was a time not so long ago when, as far as the Holy See was concerned, whoever was Pope was in perfect health right up until his death.

No longer. In an interview with Argentine daily La Nación last month, Francis himself confirmed that he is suffering from a torn ligament in his right knee, currently being treated with ice and painkillers. Talking to reporters on his way back from Malta, also last month, he conceded his health was “unpredictable”, adding, however, he hopes “it goes well”.

Given the man is 85 years old, that he suffers from a sometimes crippling sciatica, that he has undergone colon surgery and that he is missing a part of one lung as a result of a pulmonary disease contracted as a young man, then “unpredictable” seems a fair enough verdict.

Will this “unpredictability” put a halt to his gallop? Will he have to abandon ambitious travel plans for this summer which envisage papal visits to the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Canada?

Intriguingly, Vatican insiders argue that, mobility problems notwithstanding, his travel schedule will almost certainly be fulfilled. They point out he has already adapted to his new reality by using the wheelchair. Furthermore, he has “assisted” at major papal ceremonies where he has sat off to the side during the ceremony, standing only to deliver his homily, thus resting his injured knee.

One of the obviously difficult moments for a travelling Pope concerns actually getting on to the plane. On current form, he is simply unable to climb up the plane steps. When he travelled to Malta last month, Francis resolved that problem by using a freight lift and having himself “forklifted” on to the plane, very much in the manner of John Paul II in that Pope’s latter years.

Speaking last month, the Argentine journalist and doctor Nelson Castro, a man who last year published The Health of Popes, a book that also contains an interview with Pope Francis, suggested the Pope’s knee problem would be helped if could lose some weight.

Francis is reportedly on a diet at the moment, which could mean that as soon as he has lost enough weight, he will quietly slip off to the appropriate hospital and have himself a knee replacement.

That remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that papal travel remains firmly on the agenda.

Last Friday, for example, the Vatican issued formal confirmation that the Pope will visit Canada from July 24 to 30, stopping at Edmonton, Québec and Iqaluit. Then, last Saturday week, May 7, along with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Jim Wallace, Francis sent a message to South Sudan officials, saying the three Church leaders were “looking forward to visiting your great country” on their joint visit in July.

As for Lebanon, that trip could yet take place in the autumn. Originally, the Vatican had tentatively planned for the Pope to go from Lebanon to Jerusalem for a June 14 meeting with Kirill, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

However, that meeting was cancelled, presumably in the light of the Patriarch’s support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Explaining the decision, the Pope himself told La Nación: “Our diplomacy understood that a meeting between the two (of us) at this time could lend itself to much confusion.”

Indeed. Much confusion and even more polemics. You can only imagine how Ukrainians, Orthodox and Catholic alike, would have felt about images of the Pope embracing the Orthodox leader who blessed the Russian troops on their way to Ukraine.

On a different front, Francis now has another delicate international matter to resolve following the arrest in Hong Kong last week of 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen. An outspoken defender of human rights and religious freedom, Zen’s close ties with the pro-democracy movement in the former British colony have long prompted tensions with the Chinese government.

Along with three other pro-democracy activists — pop star Denise Ho, barrister Margaret Ng and academic Hui Po-keung — the ageing cardinal was arrested on suspicion of collusion with foreign forces (calling for sanctions against China), a charge that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

So far, the Vatican has reacted cautiously, expressing its “concern” about the cardinal’s arrest and adding that it is following the situation “with extreme attention”.

In recent years, Cardinal Zen has been highly critical of Vatican attempts to reach a major “agreement” with China, implying that despite his “enthusiasm”, Francis does not know “the real Communist Party”.

Furthermore, he argued the Holy See’s diplomatic efforts betrayed those often-underground Chinese Catholics who had remained loyal to Rome.

Is this traditional defender of the Catholic faith now dangerously
exposed?

Another problem for Francis — health permitting, of course.


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