ROME — Once again, Pope Francis seems well on his way to defying the odds and staging another recovery from his latest health scare.
Despite suffering from what the Vatican, belatedly, has described as a bout of severe bronchitis, which forced him to withdraw from a planned trip to the COP28 summit on climate change in Dubai, there he was on Wednesday at his regular weekly General Audience, deliberately striding into the Pope Paul VI Hall under his own power, relying only on a cane rather than using a wheelchair.
A visibly improved pontiff told the crowd in a strong voice, “I’m much better, but I still get tired if I talk too much,” and then turned things over to Italian Msgr. Filippo Ciampanelli, an official of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, who read his prepared remarks aloud.
On the same day, Francis met Roselyne Hamel, the sister of a French priest slain by Islamic radicals in France in July 2016, as well as this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize for physics and peace, giving each a copy of the “Document on Human Fraternity” he co-signed with the Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. He also received the credentials of new ambassadors from Kuwait, New Zealand, Malawi, Guinea, Sweden, and Chad, met with archbishops from Syria, Greece, and France, and granted audiences both to members of the Focolare movement and an Italian non-profit that works on social promotion.
In other words, Wednesday showed us a pope seemingly still on top of his game, which was the same image he projected Friday by making the traditional visit to Rome’s Piazza di Spagna to honor the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a gesture regarded as kicking off the Christmas season in the Eternal City.
So, does his latest recovery mean that concerns about the pope’s health have been exaggerated? Well, yes and no. The right framework with which to assess Francis’ condition probably could be best described as a mixture of caution and realism.
To begin with the dose of caution, it’s important to recall that popes, like the coward in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” tend to die a thousand deaths in terms of public perceptions. Obituaries for Pope John Paul II were written more times than one could count during his almost 27-year papacy, so much so that the Polish pope developed a standard laugh line whenever anyone would ask him how he’s feeling: “I don’t know,” he would reply with a wry smile, “I haven’t read the papers yet today.”
Yes, Francis has a concentric series of physical challenges. He’s missing part of one lung from an operation as a young man, has been forced to seek care at Rome’s Gemelli Hospital three times in 2023, has had two intestinal surgeries, suffers from chronic sciatica, and arthritic pain in his right knee continues to limit his movements. All that comes on top of simple age — 86, turning 87 next week — as he’s already the oldest reigning pope in the last 120 years and obviously not getting any younger.
Yet none of those conditions in themselves are life-threatening, and all are manageable given proper treatment and rest.
Moreover, under the heading of “sound mind, sound body,” this is not a pope who appears to be winding down. Francis still has miles to go before he sleeps, including his ambitions to bring his Synod of Bishops on Synodality to a conclusion in October 2024 and to preside over the Great Jubilee of 2025.
Finally, the Vatican has become, if not fully transparent, at least more forthcoming about the pontiff’s condition. Gone are the days when L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, once carried an angry editorial denouncing journalists who had dared to report that Pope Pius XI appeared to be suffering from a cold — just one day before he actually died. Today, if there is a serious threat to the pontiff’s health, the Vatican can be relied upon to say so out loud within a reasonable arc of time.
As a result, it’s important not to get carried away every time the pope cancels an audience or pulls out of a trip. He may well go through several more such cycles of withdrawal and return before the end finally comes.
That end will eventually come, and every day that goes by carries us closer to that moment. It may seem macabre to be so focused on every up and down in the pope’s condition, but it’s important to remember that Catholicism doesn’t have term limits, so the only scenario in which a transition takes place at the top is death or resignation, both of which are generally brought on by declines in health.
Politically, allies of a sitting pope often voice faux outrage anytime speculation about his health arises, seeing it as a samizdat way of undercutting his authority by making him seem a lame duck. That may be true in some cases, but in principle, there’s nothing disloyal or unseemly about acknowledging that, sooner or later, even such a resilient figure as Francis will meet a challenge he can’t overcome, and the Church should not be caught unprepared when that moment arrives.
The late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago once told me he maintained a file of biographical materials on his fellow cardinals and would review it from time to time, especially when a health crisis around Pope John Paul II would erupt. He did so not because he was in a rush for the end to come, but because he recognized that casting a vote in an eventual conclave would be the most important choice he ever made as a cardinal, and he didn’t want it to be “An Evening at the Improv.”
Bottom line: Don’t ignore these health scares, because eventually, one will be for real. But don’t get carried away either, because we’ve been down this road before and there’s no way of knowing how much more ground there is to cover before it’s time to exit.