The Holy Father’s use of a wheeled platform at a Mass dedicated to the New Evangelization in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday, Oct. 16, resulted in natural speculation about the Pope’s health.
Not since Blessed Pope John Paul II’s final years, when he was suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease, has the device been used to transport the Pope up the aisle of the basilica. To pre-empt the expected media chatter, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi issued a short communiqué shortly before the Mass began, saying the measure was taken to “reduce fatigue.”
“The purpose is exclusively to alleviate the efforts of the Holy Father, as already happens with his use of the popemobile during entrance processions in outdoor ceremonies and in St. Peter’s Square,” Father Lombardi said. He stressed there was no “medical reason” for Pope Benedict using the platform and that “nothing else should be read into the general state of his health, which is good.”
Indeed, for an 84-year-old man who would normally have long since retired, the Holy Father remains remarkably vigorous, as many observed during his grueling visit to Germany last month. He embarks on another overseas papal trip Nov. 18-20, this time journeying on a four-hour flight to Benin to deliver the post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the Synod on Africa, which was held in 2009.
Before that, on Oct. 27, the Pope was to host a third World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, Italy, which will draw together heads of all of the world’s major religions as well as nonbelievers. The Pope was to travel by papal train to the event, which will include representatives from more than 50 nations; the meeting marks the 25th anniversary since John Paul II held the first gathering there.
Despite managing a hectic schedule of engagements, the Pope is aware his faculties are not what they used to be. “I notice that my forces are diminishing,” he told Peter Seewald in his interview for the book Light of the World last year. “Thank God there are many co-workers. Everything is developed and implemented in a common effort. I trust that our dear Lord will give me as much strength as I need to be able to do what is necessary.”
Shortly before his recent trip to Germany, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger remarked that the Pope was as “normal as ever,” but that age was “gradually catching up with him.”
“Walking appears more difficult,” noted the Holy Father’s 87-year-old brother. “The voice has become somewhat quieter, but mentally he shows no deterioration.”
The Pope’s health has rarely been a cause for concern, and any real scares took place before he was elected in 2005. As a cardinal he suffered a minor stroke in September 1991 and, while on vacation in the Alps in August 1992, he fell and struck his head against a radiator. In 2009, again on vacation in the Alps, he slipped and broke his wrist. Yet none of these incidents left any lasting damage.
The key to his longevity, according to both himself and those close to him, is not exercise so much as keeping to a busy, disciplined routine. “One must organize one’s time correctly,” he told Seewald, “and make sure one gets enough rest, so that then one is suitably alert at the times when one is needed. In short: so that one follows the rhythm of the day in a disciplined way and knows when one will need energy.”
Asked if he uses an exercise bike given to him by his doctor, he replied. “No, I don’t get to it at all.”
“So the Pope thinks like Churchill: ‘No sports!’” countered Seewald.
The Holy Father replied, “Yes!”
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.