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Is Pope Francis Sicker Than We Know?

Italian media reports that the pontiff saw a brain-cancer specialist from Duke have Vatican watchers wondering more than ever about the health of His Holiness.

Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Geetty

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican’s press machine kicked into high gear Wednesday to try to dispel rumors that Pope Francis has a small benign brain tumor that was discovered by a Japanese specialist several months ago at a private clinic near Pisa, Italy.

As reported by Tuscan newspaper Quotidiano Nazionale with the headline, “The Pope Is Sick,” Francis is said to have been whisked away by helicopter in the dark of the night last spring for a private checkup by Japanese oncologist Takanori Fukushima at the San Rossore clinic near Pisa. Fukushima, 73, who is a professor at Duke University Medical Center and at West Virginia University Medical Center, sees some 600 patients a year as a specialist in brain cancer and aneurysms. The newspaper did not specify just why Fukushima would have been in Pisa to see the pontiff because he is not a practicing doctor in Italy.

The visit, according to an unnamed hospital employee quoted by the newspaper, resulted in the discovery of a small spot on the pope’s brain that is, as the paper reports, “not malignant and does not require surgery.”

Several unnamed sources reported seeing the papal chopper in the area late at night and another unnamed source claimed they had seen the pope’s medical chart and that, thankfully, the tumor was not malignant. There were no reports of biopsies, MRIs, or other tests that would be necessary to confirm such a diagnosis, and the hospital has refused to comment on the matter.

The paper’s director, Andrea Cangini, said he anticipated the Vatican denial and added that the reason they didn’t run the story sooner was because it had taken all these many months to confirm the details, which are scarce at best. “We have had this for months, we took months to find all the confirmation necessary,” Cangini told Bloomberg News. “We asked ourselves for a long time if it was opportune to publish, then we decided that informing the public was more important than the pope’s privacy, given his public role.”

As the story rippled through Italian news outlets, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi’s denials became more terse and tried, but he has not yet said to anyone the words, “the pope does not have a brain tumor.” Instead, he called the report “a complete lie” and scolded the paper for running such a story at such a delicate moment when the Synod of the Family is just winding down.

“The spread of the totally unfounded news of the health condition of the Holy Father on the part of an Italian news agency is seriously irresponsible and not worthy of attention,” Lombardi said in the statement. “Also, as all can see, the pope continues to exercise his intense activity without interruption and in an absolutely normal way.”

The pope did not mention his health at his Wednesday audience in St. Peter’s Square. Looking spry and happy, he greeted some 30,000 faithful in his usual manner, kissing babies and caressing the ill, though he did raise eyebrows when he mentioned a special Mass for Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005 after a long and painful battle with various health problems. “Carry with joy the cross of sufferance,” he said, referring to the late pope. The Vatican quickly noted that he had prepared his sermon long before the tumor rumor broke.

Francis, 78, who does suffer from sciatica and who had a portion of one lung removed when he was in his twenties, has repeated numerous times that he thinks his papacy will be short, and that he does not rule out retiring. He ends almost every public appearance by asking the faithful to pray for him. He is scheduled to travel to Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic for a five-day visit beginning Nov. 25.