Like millions of others I've been following the visit of Pope Francis who will address the World Meeting of Families. In one moment in which there was a lull in conversation among the TV anchors describing a particular scene I noticed the pope was walking with a limp. I had seen the limp before in past videos and programs but for some reason his limp seemed to be more prominent, explained perhaps by the fact that this was later in the day and he had been on his feet most of the day.
Everything about the pope during his first visit to the U.S. seems to be hyper-focused on what he says and what he does. And so it is I began to ruminate about his limp. I couldn't recall in past news reports any explanation as to the cause of the limp. But then again I may not have been paying close attention. But was this an acute limp or a chronic one?
As a medical student, it was recommended by a cardiologist in med school, and later a family doctor with whom I did a preceptorship in rural Monticello, Mississippi, that when out in public, standing in line, or the airport and such, to observe a random person and make a mental list of medical conditions they might have based on simple observation. The purpose being to hone one's observation and deductive reasoning skills in making a diagnosis. Dr. Brantley Pace, the rural physician, challenged me to name the occupation of select patients based on simple observation. Of course, I had no clue then that the man with tiny holes in his T-shirt was a welder, or that the young man with prominent raised areas on top of his shoulders was a pulp wood hauler, and so forth.
And so, watching Francis, I found myself thinking about this limp. A right leg limp. My first impression was it was a hip problem, perhaps bursitis. Then again, like many elderly men (he's 78) he might have a bad knee, perhaps degenerative arthritis, where the joint cartilage has worn thin. Saw four of those in the office this week. Then again it might be sciatica where he twisted the right sacroiliac joint -- like I did after Katrina after shoveling black mud for weeks. Gout, or a bunion would be less likely causes.
Anyway, curious, I did a search on this pope limp and discovered that Francis does indeed have sciatica. Sciatica results from pressure against the sciatic nerve which branches from the back, the pain coursing down the hips, thighs, and leg. With Francis, it flares up from time to time. Once it caused him to trip and fall while coming down the stairs after Mass. And in 2007, as Cardinal Bergoglio, it flared up so badly it prevented him from travelling to Rome to take part in an important ceremony in which Benedict appointed new cardinals.
In addition to his sciatica he is missing part of a lung, the result of a necessary operation when he was a child and had a severe lung infection which required two months from which to recover. Otherwise, as a 78 year old man he seems to be in fairly good health and tolerates his grueling travel schedule fairly well. Admittedly, he does take "holidays" more frequently, the Vatican aides stating he gets tired more frequently.
The health of the previous two popes were interesting. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was two years older than Francis when he was elected but resigned because of, per his resignation letter, "waning physical and mental powers." Pope John Paul II had suffered for years from Parkinsonism, a suspicion which Vatican officials only confirmed shortly before his death.
Reflecting, during an interview once, on the suffering of John Paul II, turning his personal suffering into a metaphor of bearing the cross, Francis shared his spiritual perspective on pain, a perspective he received from a nun who came to visit him in the hospital after his lung operation.
"She said something which left a big impression on me and brought me great
peace. She said: 'You are imitating Jesus'". "Pain is not a virtue in itself, but the
way we live with it can be virtuous. It makes us human and helps us recognize
In observing Pope Francis mingling with the crowds, kissing babies, tots, and wheelchair bound persons, I hope he doesn't pick up the summer respiratory virus that's been going around here and elsewhere, causing sinus and chest congestion, sore throats, and cough, lingering for days or in some cases weeks.
No doubt wherever he travels the security details for the hosting governments are intense about securing his safety, health, and welfare. The media has made much ado about the pope's refusal to use the bulletproof Popemobile. In an interview by a Spanish newspaper, Francis said,
"It's true that anything could happen, but let's face it, at my age I don't have much
He, himself, might not be worrying but the security details are probably suffering from hemorrhoids.
Overall, Pope Francis seems to be in fair health. He continues to be active, and displays a robust demeanor. May God bless him with good health that he may be active and vibrant for many more years -- and that perhaps God's blessing see fit to ease up a little on that old sciatica.