26 May 2021, The Tablet

Francis - the health check

Francis - the health check

Pope Francis pictured in September 2020
Photo: Alamy/REUTERS, Guglielmo Mangiapane


No pope has spoken with such candour about his health, physical and mental, as Francis. A papal biographer sums up the diagnosis

During Pope Francis’ March visit to Iraq, when he seemed to be ­suffering more than usual from ­sciatica, a colleague in Rome who is in regular touch with him prayed that she might take some of his pain on herself. In April she found herself with an excruciating bad back, needing a series of injections and hobbling about. When she told Francis, when he next called, he roared with laughter: “So that’s why I’ve had no pain recently!”

Careful what you pray for: it may be hard to contain. I spent most of April being treated for a herniated disc that sent pain shooting down the sciatic nerve into the legs. At the time, I blamed a tonne bag of mulch destined for newly planted trees, but let’s not scapegoat the bark-chip. Fact is, sedentary quinquagenarians cannot spend all day outside putting weight on their lower backs without paying a price.

But it made me wonder: how does Francis get through this? Prostrate, I downloaded a March 2019 interview he did with an Argentine doctor-journalist friend. It comes at the end of Nelson Castro’s La Salud de los Papas, a book on the health of the popes since Leo XIII. A couple of months ago, my eyes might have glazed over a lot of this information (old men’s issues, right?). But when Francis tells Castro that he has a long-standing narrowing of the intervertebral disc between the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae, and for years has had physiotherapy to elongate the dura mater (the connective tissues underneath the bones of the skull and the vertebral column) in order to keep the spine in place – well, the detail seems more relevant, somehow.

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