Pope's New Doctor: A Gerontologist Who Sees COVID as Normal Disease

Professor Roberto Bernabei will be caring for the health of 84-year-old Pope Francis who suffers from sciatica and had part of one of his lungs removed in his youth.

Professor Roberto Bernabei appearing on the Italian news channel La7.
Professor Roberto Bernabei appearing on the Italian news channel La7. (photo: Screenshot / La7)

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has announced that Pope Francis’ new personal doctor is Professor Roberto Bernabei, a specialist in geriatrics who in November said COVID-19 is a “normal disease” and that deaths related to the virus are “almost always” the elderly with at least three pre-existing conditions. 

Reportedly a highly respected gerontologist in Italy who teaches internal medicine and geriatrics at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome, Bernabei told the Italian television channel La7 Nov. 6 that “if this disease targets old people it is a very serious thing, of course. But it is, how to say, a normal disease… Infectious diseases unfortunately attack the most vulnerable.”

He pointed out that according to the latest figures he had seen in November, 25% of those infected were aged 70 and over, but they made up 90% of the deaths. “Practically only and exclusively old people die [from the virus],” Bernabei said, adding that “the average age” of those had died since March “exceeds 80 years and they have at least three pathologies. 

The Italian physician will be caring for the health of 84-year-old Pope Francis who suffers from sciatica and had part of one of his lungs removed in his youth. 

Bernabei replaces Francis’ previous doctor, Fabrizio Soccorsi, who had served as the Pope’s physician since 2015 but died of COVID-related causes on Jan. 9 aged 78. Soccorsi had been admitted to Rome’s Gemelli hospital on Dec. 26 suffering from cancer but according to reports died of “pulmonary complications” caused by the coronavirus. 

As well as teaching at Sacred Heart University, Bernabei also serves as the director of the department of ageing, neurological, orthopaedic and head and neck sciences at the Agostino Gemelli IRCSS University Hospital in Rome. 

Other positions he has held include being president of the Italian Society of Gerontology and Geriatrics, and a member of the European Academy for Medicine of Ageing. He has published numerous scientific papers. 

A native of Florence, Bernabei, 69, is married to American-Italian film actress and former showgirl, Sydne Rome, a convert to Catholicism who starred in Spaghetti Westerns but whose face was later disfigured in a car accident. They have two grown children. 

Given the weight of responsibility in caring for the Pope’s physical well-being, being the Pope’s physician is a challenging position, heightened by incessant media attention into the state of the Pope’s health. The Pope’s personal doctor also accompanies the Pope on papal trips and Bernabei will most likely be joining Francis on his upcoming March 5-8 visit to Iraq. 

French founder of the Communaute de l'Arche (Arch community) Jean Vanier gestures during a press conference in central London on March 11, 2015, in which he was announced as the winner of the 2015 Templeton Prize.

New Report Details Abuses of L’Arche Founder Jean Vanier

Composed of six researchers from different backgrounds, the independent commission sought to understand the context and sectarian mechanisms that enabled Vanier, as a great spiritual figure, to use his power to take advantage of young women.