Latest papal health scare doesn’t mean the end, but it may mean change

Sciatica is not life-threatening, it doesn’t shorten the lifespan, and it doesn’t pose the risk of either physical or mental incapacity. That’s not to say it’s trivial – as Francis himself said talking about it in 2013, “I don’t wish it on anyone!” – but it’s not the sort of thing that raises questions about the pope’s ability to govern.

News Analysis

ROME – At least so far, media outlets and online chatter appear to be reacting to the Vatican’s latest announcement that Pope Francis has had to pull out of public events with admirable (and, frankly, atypical) calm.

Saturday evening Rome time, the Vatican issued a brief statement saying the pope won’t preside at a Mass this morning for the Sunday of the Word of God, nor will be deliver his annual address to the diplomatic corps or lead a vespers service for the close of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity tomorrow, due to a new flare-up of sciatica. It comes after a similar announcement Dec. 31 that the pope wouldn’t take part in celebrations for News Years Eve or New Years Day, for the same reason.

The pope will, however, deliver the usual Sunday Angelus address at noon Rome time today, once again livestreamed from the papal apartment due to Covid-19 restrictions on public gatherings.

For those of a certain age, the nonchalance with which most people seem to be taking the news right now can be a bit disorienting.

For years under the late St. John Paul II, anytime the Vatican announced the pope would be a no-show at something a media frenzy ensued, fueled by speculation that perhaps the end was near. The hair-trigger tendencies of the social media world have become even more pronounced in the years since, so, in the abstract, one could imagine an explosion of alarmist hype and “deep state” sorts of conspiracy theories whenever a pope so much as hiccups.

Yet today, Francis has delegated or rescheduled high-profile events twice in less than a month, but nobody seems to be in much of a tither. In large part, of course, that’s because the situations are wildly different.

John Paul’s Parkinson’s disease took a visually obvious toll, rendering him steadily more stooped and frail, unable to move much under his own power, and, towards the end, unable even to speak much. We also knew that Parkinson’s is a progressive disease and adults who suffer from it generally develop at least one major symptom within 10 years, such as a physical disability or dementia.

The sciatica from which Francis suffers is far less serious, if, often, no less painful. It’s a condition caused by the pinching of a nerve at the base of the spine, generating pain in the lower back, hips, legs and thighs. Generally it resolves itself with proper rest, though certain therapies can help, including massage.

(In 2017, a respected Italian news magazine reported that Francis was using his reduced summer schedule that year to receive massages and injections to manage his sciatica. The Vatican, however, is notoriously tight-lipped about a pope’s health and never confirmed that report. It also has not provided any details on what treatments the pontiff may be receiving now, but in most cases when sciatica flares up doctors prescribe physical therapy and exercise, perhaps accompanied by anti-inflammatory medications or muscle relaxants.)

Sciatica is not life-threatening, it doesn’t shorten the lifespan, and it doesn’t pose the risk of either physical or mental incapacity. That’s not to say it’s trivial – as Francis himself said talking about it in 2013, “I don’t wish it on anyone!” – but it’s not the sort of thing that raises questions about the pope’s ability to govern.

That said, the fact that these spikes in sciatica may be occurring with greater frequency could have implications going forward not for whether Francis can lead, but how.

To take a small example, many adults with sciatica find that their pain tends to be worse in the morning after spending several hours stationary in bed. The Vatican may be forced to tweak the pope’s schedule, shifting some events usually held in the mornings to the afternoon and early evening to allow Francis to be more at ease.

In addition, one trigger for sciatica pain often is remaining stationary in one position for too long, whether it’s standing or sitting. That could mean that Francis increasingly won’t lead major liturgies or events that take a long time, delegating those tasks to others.

(Today, Italian Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, will lead the Mass for the pope, while Monday’s vespers service will be led by Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.)

(We’ll see what happens with the speech to diplomats, though it’s entirely conceivable that, in the future, the address could be read by someone else and then the pope could receive the envoys afterwards for the usual handshake and photo op.)

Travel also requires sitting for long stretches, and it may be that, once the pandemic recedes and movement is possible again, Francis will be compelled either to travel less distance – three hours in the air as opposed to, say, 13 – or to keep his schedule lighter once he does get someplace.

In the short term, the pope’s struggles with sciatica add another item to the list of reasons for skepticism about his scheduled March 5-8 trip to Iraq, which already included the security situation in the wake of a recent Baghdad suicide bombing and the likelihood that the effect of coronavirus vaccinations won’t yet be felt in just two months’ time.

None of that, by the way, necessarily means Francis will be any less visible. It’s worth recalling that just days after he was forced to pull out of this year’s New Years Eve and New Years Day events, he gave an interview to an Italian news channel that drew more than 5 million viewers here and made headlines around the world when Francis disclosed he’d be getting the Covid vaccine and insisted people have an ethical obligation to do so.

Over the past year, Francis hasn’t made any international trips or stood in front of big crowds in Rome, yet through a combination of iconic events, phone calls, letters, decrees, interviews and livestreamed commentary, he still managed to end the year as one of the world’s most covered media figures.

Moreover, not only does sciatica not impair the pope’s ability to govern, there’s a sense in which it may actually help. Many observers believe that the pace of financial reform in the Vatican, for example, accelerated through the second half of 2020 to some degree because, without trips or the usual stream of visiting dignitaries, Francis simply had more time to focus on internal administration.

If sciatica imposes some of those same limits even after the pandemic has passed, it could have a similar effect, allowing Francis to shift some of his legendary reserves of energy into tasks more directly related to running the Church.

To sum up, for once the collective reaction to a papal health scare seems about right, which is to say, avoiding panic. For now, the interesting thing to watch may not be whether Francis is up to the job, but how the job may evolve to suit what he’s up to.

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.

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