Pope Francis’ health: Here’s a timeline of his medical issues in recent years
Vatican City, Jun 7, 2023 / 03:51 am
Pope Francis will undergo abdominal surgery under general anesthesia on Wednesday afternoon, the Vatican has said.
The 86-year-old Francis, who has spent most of his 10 years as pope in relatively good health, has dealt with several painful medical conditions over the last few years.
Here is a timeline charting Pope Francis’ recent health concerns:
A bout of sciatic pain in the final days of 2020 kept Pope Francis from presiding at the Vatican’s liturgies on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
Francis has suffered from sciatica for a number of years; he spoke about it during an in-flight press conference returning from a trip to Brazil in July 2013.
“Sciatica is very painful, very painful! I don’t wish it on anyone,” he said about the condition, which starts in the lower back and can cause pain running down the back of the thigh and leg to the foot.
Pope Francis was also forced to cancel three more public appearances at the end of January due to sciatic nerve pain.
A problem with his colon landed the pope in the hospital on July 4, 2021.
According to the Vatican, Francis underwent surgery to relieve stricture of the colon caused by diverticulitis. The three-hour surgery included a left hemicolectomy, the removal of one side of the colon.
During his 11-day stay in Rome’s Gemelli Hospital, the pope made “normal clinical progress” in his recovery, the Vatican said.
At meetings in January, Pope Francis shared that he was having problems with his knee.
“Excuse me if I stay seated, but I have a pain in my leg today … It hurts me, it hurts if I’m standing,” the pope told journalists from the Jerusalem-based Christian Media Center on Jan. 17.
He explained further at a general audience the following week, saying the reason he would be unable to greet pilgrims as usual was because of a temporary “problem with my right leg,” an inflamed knee ligament.
At the end of February, Pope Francis canceled two public events due to knee pain and doctors’ orders to rest.
In the month that followed, he received help going up and down stairs but continued to walk and stand without assistance.
During a trip to Malta on the first weekend of April, Pope Francis used a lift to disembark the papal plane. A special lift was also installed at the Basilica of St. Paul in Rabat, so that Francis could visit and pray in the crypt grotto without taking the stairs.
On the return flight on April 3, he told journalists that “my health is a bit fickle, I have this knee problem that brings out problems with walking.”
At the Vatican’s Good Friday service, the pope did not lay prostrate before the altar, as he has done in the past.
He also did not preside over the Easter Vigil Mass on April 16 or participate in the paschal candle procession but sat in the front of the congregation in a white chair.
On April 22 and April 26, Francis’ agenda was cleared for medical checkups and rest for his knee, the Vatican said. The following day, the pope told pilgrims at his general audience that his knee prevented him from standing for very long.
Pope Francis also started to remain seated in the popemobile while greeting pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square.
On April 30, he said that his doctor had ordered him not to walk.
The pope said at the beginning of May that he would undergo a medical procedure on his knee, “an intervention with infiltrations,” by which he may have meant a therapeutic injection, sometimes used to relieve knee pain caused by ligament tears.
Two days later, he used a wheelchair in public for the first time since his July 2021 colon surgery. Throughout May he continued to use the wheelchair and avoid most standing and walking.
Francis was also undergoing over two hours of rehabilitation for his knee every day, according to an Argentine archbishop close to the pontiff.
The treatment “is giving results,” Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández wrote on Twitter on May 14 after he had a private meeting with Francis.
Other than his knee, “he’s better than ever,” Fernández added.
Earlier, Lebanon’s tourism minister had said that a reported papal visit to the country in June was being postponed due to the pope’s health.
The pope did stand for longer periods when celebrating a May 15 Mass in St. Peter’s Square. Afterward, a seminarian from Mexico caught a moment of lightheartedness between pilgrims and the pope as he greeted them from the popemobile.
Someone thanked the pope for being present at the Mass, despite his knee pain, to which Francis responded: “Do you know what I need for my knee? A bit of tequila.”
In early June, the Vatican postponed Pope Francis’ planned visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan for health reasons. The trip was planned for July 2–7 but was put off “at the request of his doctors, and in order not to jeopardize the results of the therapy that he is undergoing for his knee,” according to the Vatican.
Less than a week later, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis would not preside over the June 16 Corpus Christi Mass because of his knee problems and “the specific liturgical needs of the celebration.”
Pope Francis commented on his health and spoke about the effects of old age in general terms during his June 15 general audience.
“When you are old, you are no longer in control of your body. One has to learn to choose what to do and what not to do,” the pope said. “The vigor of the body fails and abandons us, even though our heart does not stop yearning. One must then learn to purify desire: Be patient, choose what to ask of the body and of life. When we are old, we cannot do the same things we did when we were young: The body has another pace, and we must listen to the body and accept its limits. We all have them. I too have to use a walking stick now.”
Toward the end of the month, on June 28, Pope Francis walked with a cane to meet bishops from Brazil and told them, “I have been able to walk for three days.”
On Aug. 4, the Vatican announced that Massimiliano Strappetti, a Vatican nurse, had been appointed as Pope Francis’ “personal health care assistant.”
José María Villalón, the head doctor of the Atlético de Madrid soccer team, was recruited to assist Pope Francis with his knee problems. He said the pope is “a very nice and very stubborn patient in the sense that there are surgical procedures that he does not want” and that “we have to offer him more conservative treatments so that he will agree to them.”
In an interview published by the Associated Press on Jan. 25, Pope Francis announced that his diverticulitis had returned. He emphasized that he is in “good health” and that, for his age, he is “normal.”
On Feb. 23 the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had a “strong cold.” The pope distributed copies of his speeches at two morning appointments rather than read them aloud as usual.
On March 29 the Vatican announced that Pope Francis was expected to remain in a hospital in Rome for “some days” due to a respiratory infection. It had been announced earlier in the day that he was in the hospital for previously scheduled medical checkups.
The Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis visited Gemelli Hospital’s center for the elderly for a 40-minute appointment on June 6.
On June 7, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said the pope would undergo an abdominal surgery under general anesthesia in the afternoon.
The operation, a laparotomy and abdominal wall reconstruction with prosthetic material, was necessary due to a hernia causing recurrent, painful, and worsening symptoms, Bruni said.
This story was originally published May 21, 2022, and updated on March 29, 2023, and June 7, 2023.