No one can argue that Pope Francis deserves a little break. Since taking office in March 2013, the 77-year-old Argentinian has been on the move almost nonstop greeting his adoring public and reforming the Vatican’s many troubled institutions.
But an announcement by the Vatican’s news service on Monday that the pope will be drastically curtailing his schedule by suspending his popular Wednesday audiences in July and skipping his daily Mass at the Casa Santa Marta, where he lives, has many in Rome wondering if the pope is really OK.
Many people already have tickets for the July audiences, which implies that the decision to suspend them was spontaneous, not preplanned. Several Vatican insiders also have noted that the pope is gaining weight and breathing harder than usual, which has caused some of his close associates to warn him to slow down. “Some in the Holy See are beginning to openly discuss concerns about Francis’ condition and asking if the Holy Father is overtaxing himself,” longtime Vatican correspondent Edward Pentin wrote after the surprising changes to the pope’s schedule.
The worries began last week, when the pope spontaneously canceled his Monday and Tuesday engagements after his historic trip to the Holy Land and Peace prayer with leaders from Israel and Palestine, sending the Vatican press corps in Rome into a minor moment of panic. This week’s announcement of his amended schedule has only added to the speculation that the pope’s health is suffering.
Francis, who only has one functioning lung after having part of his other lung removed due to an infection when he was younger, has been noticeably tired in recent weeks. “Close observers are noting that the Pope’s physical body may be failing to keep up with his youthful energy and vigor, especially considering he only has one fully functioning lung,” says Pentin.
By some estimates, Francis has gained as much as 20 pounds since taking office, likely because his physical activity has diminished, even though his scheduled has intensified. “His repeated fatigue reports and weight gain suggest he may be slipping into a form of chronic heart failure common among victims of significant lung disorders,” Dr. Peter Hibberd told Newsmax. “His immunity will be challenged when under stress, and more frequent pauses to recover from otherwise small insults—such as colds, sore throats, and minor injuries—can be expected to increase in the future unless he paces himself.”
There are no reports whether the pope has been forced to use an inhaler or take extra oxygen to help him breathe in Rome’s stifling humid summer weather, but there is rampant speculation in Rome that part of the reason he is going undercover in July is because whatever is ailing him can’t easily be hidden. Papal confidante Cardinal Telesphonre Placidus Toppo of India told Italy’s Libero newspaper that he found the pope “very tired and fatigued” after spending time with him. “I honestly do not know how long he might be able to sustain this pace that he’s certainly not accustomed to,” Toppo told the paper.
The Vatican has played down concerns for the pope, saying last week the pope cancelled his appointments due to a slight “indisposition” and that it was “not serious.” Unlike his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Francis will not be spending the summer in Castel Gandolfo outside of Rome, but will instead be working from his offices in Vatican City, albeit out of the public view except on Sundays when he will continue to bless the crowds who gather in St. Peter’s Square at noon for his weekly Angelus—a practice that even the ailing John Paul II was able to manage until the final days of his life. Francis’ next major public appointment is now a trip to South Korea scheduled for August 13—18.
The Vatican may be brushing off concern, but even Francis seems to be fully aware of his mortality. During a visit to the Sant Egidio charity in Rome’s Trastevere district on Sunday, the pope braved torrential rainstorms to greet the poor, and finished the event by asking the crowds to pray for him. “My work is unhealthy, extraordinary work and I need prayer,” he said.
And last week, when he was asked why he took risks by traveling through massive crowds without the bullet-proof “sardine can” pope mobile during an interview with Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, he said he left his fate in God’s hands. “It’s true that anything could happen,” the pontiff replied. “But let’s face it, at my age I don’t have much to lose.”