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UPDATE: Pope Francis’ health: Here’s a timeline of his medical issues in recent years

A cannula for intravenous treatment on Pope Francis’ right hand is visible as he gives the Angelus blessing on Nov. 26, 2023. / Credit: Vatican Media

Vatican City, Nov 27, 2023 / 15:45 pm (CNA).

Pope Francis is being treated with antibiotics intravenously and has postponed some of his meetings this week as he recovers from a “mild flu,” according to the Vatican. 

A CT scan at a Rome hospital over the weekend “ruled out pneumonia, but it showed lung inflammation causing some breathing difficulties,” Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Nov. 27.

Francis, who turns 87 next month, spent much of the past decade as pope in relatively good health but has dealt with several painful medical conditions over the last few years.

Here is a timeline charting Pope Francis’ recent health concerns:

December 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.

January 2021

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

July 2021

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

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.

January 2022

Pope Francis shares 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 tells journalists from the Jerusalem-based Christian Media Center on Jan. 17.

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.

February 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. A special lift is also installed at Malta’s Basilica of St. Paul in Rabat so 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 the month that he will 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.

Pope Francis’ general audience in St. Peter’s Square, May 18, 2022. Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

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

The treatment “is giving results,” then-Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández writes on Twitter on May 14 after he has a private meeting with Francis.

Other than his knee, “he’s better than ever,” Fernández adds.

Earlier, Lebanon’s tourism minister says that a reported papal visit to the country in June was postponed due to the pope’s health.

The pope does stand for long periods of time when celebrating a May 15 Mass in St. Peter’s Square. Afterward, a seminarian from Mexico catches a moment of lightheartedness between pilgrims and the pope as he greets them from the popemobile. Someone thanks the pope for being present at the Mass, despite his knee pain, to which Francis responds: “Do you know what I need for my knee? A bit of tequila.”

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.”

Pope Francis delivered his homily from a wheelchair on the Solemnity of Pentecost on June 5, 2022. Vatican Media

Pope Francis comments on his health and speaks 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 says. “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 walks with a cane to meet bishops from Brazil and tells them: “I have been able to walk for three days.”

August 2022

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

November 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.”

January 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.”

February 2023

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

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.

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.

Pope Francis greeted media with surgeon Dr. Sergio Alfieri before leaving Rome’s Gemelli Hospital shortly before 9:00 a.m. on June 16, 2023. Before returning to the Vatican, he stopped to pray in front of the historic Marian icon of Salus Populi Romani at St. Mary Major Basilica, and made a quick visit to a group of religious sisters close to St. Peter’s Square. Vatican Media.

November 2023

Pope Francis comes down with a “mild flu,” according to the Vatican. The pope cancels his scheduled meetings and goes to the hospital on Nov. 25 for precautionary testing.

The CT scan at the hospital rules out pneumonia but shows that the pope has lung inflammation that is “causing some breathing difficulties,” Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni tells journalists on Nov. 27.

The pope is treated with antibiotics intravenously as he recovers. A bandage holding in place a cannula for intravenous treatment can be seen on the pope’s right hand as he gives the Angelus blessing from his residence, the Casa Santa Marta, rather than from the usual window of the Apostolic Palace overlooking St. Peter’s Square. 

“Today I cannot appear at the window because I have this problem of inflammation of the lungs,” the pope says in the Angelus broadcast on Nov. 26.

The pope indicates in his Angelus address that he still intends to travel to Dubai Dec. 1–3 to deliver a speech to the United Nations COP28 climate conference. 

Pope Francis feels well enough to keep his scheduled appointment with the president of Paraguay the following day. The Vatican releases photos of the pope’s meeting with the Paraguayan president showing the pope smiling and using a cane to walk.

This story was originally published May 21, 2022, and was last updated on Nov. 27, 2023.

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