ROME – For the first time, Pope Francis was seen in public being transported in a wheelchair to an audience with the leaders of women’s religious communities on Thursday, which the Vatican ascribed to his recent difficulties with knee pain.
In each of the two papacies prior to Francis – John Paul II and Benedict XVI – difficulties with physical movement became an increasing part of the narrative in terms of how those popes were seen by the public.
While rumors have circulated in recent weeks about the possibility that Pope Francis, who has extreme difficulty walking, might require surgery to solve his knee problem, the Vatican press office said that for the time being, it is not a question of surgery, but treatment with “infiltrations.”
After Pope Francis was wheeled into his meeting with members of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), the Vatican Press Office said that “due to the knee pain, doctors have advised him to rest his limb.”
They said the pope will likely continue to use the wheelchair for the next few days, but that for now, “the planned programs of the papal agenda remain.”
Pope Francis spoke of his knee problems in an interview earlier this week with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, in which he admitted that he has “a torn ligament” and has been advised by his doctors to stay off his knee. “I’ll do an intervention with infiltrations in these days, and we’ll see,” he said, noting that for some time he has had difficulty walking.
“Once the popes used to go with the gestatorial chair,” he said, referring to a ceremonial chair set on poles and carried on shoulders that was used prior to the popemobile. “It takes a bit of pain, of humiliation,” he added.
While some took the pope’s comments about an “intervention” to mean surgery, the Vatican has said that for now, his treatment consists only of infiltrations.
Prior to Thursday’s public appearance in the wheelchair, Francis had reportedly used it on occasion inside his residence at the Santa Marta guesthouse in order to rest his knee.
It is possible that doctors could still advise the pope, who will turn 86 in December, to have knee replacement surgery depending on how effective the infiltrations are, but for now, he seems set on avoiding it.
Pope Francis had a major surgery on his colon last year related to an intestinal condition termed by doctors as stenotic diverticulitis, meaning a restriction of the colon due to the hardening of tissue.
He also suffers from sciatica and has increasingly opted out of celebrating his major papal liturgies, delegating cardinals to celebrate in his place while he “assists” in the ceremony, sitting in a chair to the side of the altar and standing only to give the homily and during other key moments of the liturgy.
The pope is also missing part of a lung due to a pulmonary disease he suffered from as a young Jesuit.
For many, the sight of Pope Francis in a wheelchair has been jarring given that he’s often been styled as the Energizer Bunny of popes, carrying out a busy schedule at an impressive pace since his election in March 2013.
Yet while Francis’s knee troubles might slow him down in terms of his daily workload, he seems intent on keeping as many appointments as possible, and has shown no sign of slowing down.
John Paul II endured a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease and dealt with numerous other health issues that came up throughout his nearly 27-year papacy, yet continued with his ministry until the end.
Benedict XVI, however, who became increasingly frail as his time in office continued, cited his declining physical strength as one of the reasons for his shocking resignation in February 2013. Benedict, 95, also uses a wheelchair, and continues to receive occasional guests at his residence in the Vatican’s Mater Ecclesiae monastery.
In the past, Pope Francis has said that he is open to resigning if he feels the Holy Spirit leading him in that direction, but there is no indication that he is considering the move now. His schedule remains active, and he has several trips planned for the summer, including a visit to the Congo and South Sudan, as well as expected trips to Canada and Kazakhstan that have yet to be announced.
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