“I am visiting Francis. He is in very good health and his mind is sharp as always.”
Thus began a message about the pope, which was posted May 14 on Twitter by Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández of Argentina.
“There’s a problem in one of his knees, but every day he does more than two hours of therapy, which is producing results. Otherwise, he is better than ever,” the archbishop insisted.
It was certainly a cheery update on something that’s become a growing concern for many— the 85-year-old pope’s recent struggles with health issues.
It has not even been a full year since Francis underwent aggressive surgery to remove one-third of his large intestine, a lengthier-than-planned procedure that the pope’s closest aides downplayed as something very routine. Now in the past several weeks the pope’s ability to walk has become severely hampered by what those same aides will only say is a “knee problem.”
That problem got so serious at the beginning of May that the elderly and overweight pope’s doctor ordered him to stay off his feet and use a wheelchair. Francis says the aim is to allow the knee to heal. But neither he nor anyone else at the Vatican has given precise details about what the ailment actually is, although the pope has mentioned something about a strained tendon. He’s also revealed that he’s had “injections,” but without disclosing what type of injections they were.
All we know officially is that his most pressing health concern at the moment is the “knee problem.”
It’s curious that a visiting prelate, rather than the Holy See Press Office or the pope’s personal physician, issued the latest papal health bulletin. But, then again, Archbishop Fernández is not just any visiting prelate. The man commonly known as “Tucho” is very close to Francis and has served for years as his personal theologian and main ghostwriter.
Francis, for his part, has been a mentor to the soon-to-be 60-year-old Fernández. The two men have long looked out for each other, dating back to the pope’s days as cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires when the Congregation for Catholic Education kept refusing to confirm his appointment of Fernández as president of the Catholic University of Argentina.
It was a long struggle that Cardinal Bergoglio eventually won. And once he became pope it took him only two months to make Tucho a titular archbishop, while resolutely denying the red hat to the Vatican official (a French Dominican) who was responsible for blocking Fernández’s appointment as university president.
Fernández is believed to have written a substantial part of Evangelii gaudium, the 2013 apostolic exhortation that Francis has repeatedly called the most important document of his pontificate. Indeed, this text offers a bold vision for an evangelical reform of the entire Church at all levels. Since its publication nearly nine years ago, the pope has taken slow, resolute steps to launch long-term processes that he hopes will eventually lead to the full realization of its vision.
But they are just baby steps at this point and there is a fear, at least among those who have enthusiastically embraced Evangelii gaudium, that this blueprint for a reformed Church (and much else Pope Francis has been doing) may not survive him. Hence the growing concerns about his health.
Has he done enough to ensure that the reforms he’s launched are irrevocable? Can we be confident that his eventual successor (or the one after that) will be unable to overturn was he has done?
According to Archbishop Fernández, the answer to both questions is yes. “There’s no turning back,” he said in a 2015 interview with Italian daily Corriere della Sera. “If and when Francis is no longer pope, his legacy will remain strong...the majority of the People of God with their special sense will not easily accept turning back on certain things,” he predicted.
In other words, it’s the Catholic people—not the bishops, cardinals or Vatican officials— who will make sure the changes stick. Fernández is also convinced that the pope’s methodology—moving slowly, one step at a time—has been another key to laying down an unassailable foundation for reform.
“You have to realize that he is aiming at a reform that is irreversible,” the archbishop said in that same interview.
One thing for sure is that, despite the “knee problem,” the pope is showing no signs of slowing down. He even has extensive travel plans this summer to visit places as far away from the Vatican as Canada, South Sudan and the Congo. And his daily schedule of meetings has not been scaled back at all. If anything, it looks like the pope is actually picking up the pace.
If you find that reassuring, you’d better listen more carefully to what Archbishop Fernández had to say about this back in 2015:
“If one day he should intuit that he’s running out of time and he doesn’t have enough time to do what the Spirit is asking him, you can be sure he will speed up.”
Robert Mickens is the English editor for La Croix International website.