Pope Francis visits the hospital: His health issues through the years

Pope Francis greets the faithful from his wheelchair during his Feb. 28, 2024 general audience at the Vatican. / Credit: Vatican Media

CNA Staff, Feb 28, 2024 / 16:49 pm (CNA).

Pope Francis was hospitalized Wednesday morning after a public audience, with the Vatican confirming that he underwent unspecified “diagnostic tests.” 

The 87-year-old pope was taken to the Gemelli Isola Tiberina Hospital before returning to his Vatican residence shortly after noon. The Vatican says the pope has had “a mild flu-like condition” since at least Saturday, when he canceled his scheduled public appearances.

Pope Francis has faced numerous health challenges in recent years, and yet still has maintained a busy schedule of meetings, Masses, and travel since 2020. 

Diverticulitis and other abdominal issues

July 2021:

A problem with his colon lands the pope in the hospital on July 4, 2021.

Pope Francis undergoes surgery to relieve stricture of the colon caused by diverticulitis. The three-hour surgery includes a left hemicolectomy, the removal of one side of the colon.

The pope spends 11 days in Rome’s Gemelli Hospital recovering from the surgery.

Jan. 2023:

In an interview published by the Associated Press on Jan. 25, Pope Francis announces that his diverticulitis has returned. He emphasizes that he is in “good health” and that, for his age, he is “normal.”

June 2023:

Pope Francis undergoes a three-hour abdominal surgery to repair an incisional hernia on June 7.

A team of surgeons removes scar tissue and operates on a hernia in the pope’s abdominal wall at the site of a previous surgical incision in Rome’s Gemelli Hospital. 

The pope is discharged on June 16 after an eight-day stay in the hospital recovering from the operation.

Bronchitis and other lung issues

March 2023:

On March 29 the Vatican announces that Pope Francis is expected to remain in a hospital in Rome for “some days” due to a respiratory infection. It had announced earlier in the day that he was in the hospital for previously scheduled medical checkups.

Nov. 2023: 

Pope Francis goes to the hospital on Nov. 25 for precautionary testing amid a “mild flu.” A CT scan at the hospital rules out pneumonia, but shows that the pope has lung inflammation causing breathing difficulties. The pope is treated with antibiotics intravenously as he recovers, and he manages to keep his scheduled appointment with the president of Paraguay the following day. 

Despite being strongly committed to attending, Pope Francis ultimately on Nov. 30 cancels his trip to Dubai for a climate conference amid “very acute infectious bronchitis.” Despite feeling under the weather, the pope maintained a very full schedule that day with nine official meetings scheduled for the morning. Amid the pope’s recovery, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin instead headed the Vatican’s delegation to the COP28 climate conference. 

Colds, flus, and miscellaneous

Aug. 2022:

On Aug. 4, the Vatican announces that Massimiliano Strappetti, a Vatican nurse, has been appointed as Pope Francis’ “personal health care assistant.”

Feb. 2023:

On Feb. 23 the Vatican announces that Pope Francis had a “strong cold.” The pope distributes copies of his speeches at two morning appointments rather than reading them aloud as usual.

Late Feb. 2024:

Pope Francis cancels his public appearances amid “mild flu,” which the Vatican later describes as a cold. 

Knee issues

Jan. 2022:

Pope Francis shares that he was having problems with his knee necessitating that he remain seated. Francis tells the crowd at his general audience that the reason he is unable to greet pilgrims as usual is because of a temporary “problem with my right leg,” an inflamed knee ligament.

Feb. 2022:

Pope Francis cancels two public events at the end of February due to knee pain and doctors’ orders to rest. In the month that follows, he receives help going up and down stairs but continues to walk and stand without assistance.

April 2022:

During a trip to Malta, Pope Francis uses a lift to disembark the papal plane and a special lift is also installed at Malta’s Basilica of St. Paul in Rabat, so that Francis can visit and pray in the crypt grotto without taking the stairs.

On the return flight on April 3, Francis tells journalists, “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 does not lay prostrate before the altar, as he has done in the past.

He also does not celebrate the Easter Vigil Mass on April 16 or participate in the paschal candle procession, but sits in the front of the congregation in a white chair.

On April 22 and April 26, Francis’ agenda is cleared for medical checkups and rest for his knee. The following day, the pope tells pilgrims at his general audience that his knee prevents him from standing for very long.

Pope Francis also begins to remain seated in the popemobile while greeting pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square.

On April 30, he says that his doctor has ordered him not to walk.

May 2022:

The pope says 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 uses a wheelchair in public for the first time since his July 2021 colon surgery. Throughout May he continues to use the wheelchair and avoids most standing and walking.

Francis also undergoes over two hours of rehabilitation for his knee every day, according to an Argentine archbishop close to the pontiff.

June 2022:

In early June, the Vatican postpones 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 is 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 announces that Pope Francis will not preside over the June 16 Corpus Christi Mass because of his knee problems and “the specific liturgical needs of the celebration.”

Nov. 2022:

José María Villalón, the head doctor of the Atlético de Madrid soccer team, is recruited to assist Pope Francis with his knee problems. He says 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.”

Here’s a breakdown of Pope Francis’ notable health issues in the past several years. 

Sciatic nerve pain

Dec. 2020:

A bout of sciatic pain in the final days of 2020 keeps 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.

Jan. 2021:

Pope Francis cancels three more public appearances at the end of January due to sciatic nerve pain.

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