The day after Pope John Paul II underwent a tracheotomy to relieve respiratory problems in 2005, the Vatican’s then spokesperson told reporters that he had enjoyed a breakfast of 10 cookies. He died soon after.
So when the Vatican spokesperson announced on Tuesday in a short bulletin that Francis, 84, was recovering well from colon surgery on Sunday, that he had rested well, eaten breakfast, read some newspapers and risen to take some steps, there was – if no reason to doubt the veracity of the Vatican statement – a lingering cloud of earned skepticism about the pope’s actual condition on the well guarded 10th floor of a Rome hospital.
“In the Vatican there is a joke that the pope is always well until he dies, and even a bit after that,” Iacopo Scaramuzzi, a Vatican expert who writes for the news agency Askanews, said, adding that the secrecy results from a fear of divisions in the church caused by premature, and unseemly, machinations by cardinals seeking a successor. “We should also add that the Vatican in general is not the most transparent institution on earth.”
The Vatican’s history of obfuscation, opaqueness and Pravda-like messaging is well established and has created for itself a communications challenge, especially in a social-media age in which immediate information and incessant updates are expected and the pope doesn’t think the granular details of his health are necessarily anybody’s business.
Ten days before the apparently scheduled surgery, Salvatore Izzo, a Vatican expert and the director of the Vatican news website FarodiRoma, said he told the pope about his own health woes but heard nothing in return from Francis about any potential health concerns.
The Vatican only reinforced questions about how forthcoming, and trustworthy, it was with the secrecy with which it handled the revelation of the pope’s surgery.
On July 2, the Vatican spokesperson, Matteo Bruni, released a statement saying that the prefecture of the Pontifical Household had announced that the pope’s general audiences would be suspended for the month for the “usual summer pause” and would start again on Aug. 4. Francis, the statement said, would continue to address the faithful with his weekly Angelus prayer.
On Sunday afternoon, Bruni, sent a message to reporters at 3:20 p.m. on the rarely used application Telegram that Francis, who had part of a lung removed when he was 21, had been taken to the Gemelli hospital in Rome in the “afternoon” for a “scheduled surgery” to treat symptomatic diverticular stenosis of the colon.
But if it was scheduled, as the Vatican said, it was the first time anyone had heard of it.
The surprise of the announcement sowed perhaps unnecessary alarm, and reporters were left looking at his recent statements – “Pray in a special way: the pope needs your prayers,” he said in his weekly blessing on June 27 – as if they were medical tea leaves.
For hours, as Italian television published anonymous leaks about the pope’s condition and “Innerspace”-style photos of afflicted colons, there was no official word about the pope’s condition.
Shortly before midnight, the Vatican released a statement with the names of the pope’s many doctors saying that he had “responded well to the operation performed under a general anesthetic.” On Monday, a short bulletin at noon from Bruni noted that Francis was “in good general condition, alert and breathing on his own” after a surgery that lasted about three hours. It said that he was expected to stay in the hospital about seven days unless there were complications.
That’s it and that is, experts say, to the pope’s liking.
Despite a large staff powering a quick and nimble in-house news outlet on the web, building millions of followers on Twitter and Instagram, Vatican experts say Francis doesn’t want his health, or personal matters, to become the story.
“He doesn’t want his hospital admission to become a show,” said Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert who writes for Rome-based daily newspaper La Repubblica. “He asked for complete privacy, and that is where the sparse bulletins come from. This is simply his style.”
Defenders of the Vatican argue that a lot has changed since the time of Francis’ predecessors. Pope John Paul II was clearly ailing before the Vatican officially addressed the issue of his health. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, his spokesperson who had attended medical school in his youth, drew internal criticism of Vatican officials in 1996 when he indirectly acknowledged that the pope had Parkinson’s disease. And the investigation of a murder in 1998 of a commander of the pope’s Swiss Guards, his wife and an underling was closed three hours after the bodies were discovered and has never been reopened.
Secrecy and scandals abounded under Pope Benedict XVI, and factions of cardinals inside the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy that runs the church, used the eager Italian media as easels to paint their conspiracies and air their gossip. In 2012, the pope’s own butler leaked private papers filled with accusations to Italian journalists, an enormously embarrassing scandal that came to be known as Vatileaks. Benedict retired soon after.
In March 2018, Monsignor Dario Vigano, the head of the Vatican’s communications department, stepped down after evidence emerged that he had doctored a letter by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to make the former pontiff appear more supportive of a series of books on Francis’ theology. Photos of the letter disseminated by the Vatican communications office purposefully blurred two lines in which Benedict acknowledged that he had not actually read the books. Even so, Vigano has maintained influence in Vatican communications.
The following year, the Vatican also edited the pope’s remarks supporting civil unions out of an interview with a Mexican television reporter, a censorship which only came to light when a documentary filmmaker was accidentally given access to the original recording left on the cutting room floor.
And the church has hired former top Vatican journalists to run an in-house news outlet, called Vatican News, which has the appearance of an independent news portal, regularly advancing news on church stories, most recently the indictments of Vatican officials on charges of financial crimes. It delivers news-making interviews with cardinals, and frustrates competitors in the Catholic media. But it is essentially a sleek press organ and filter against negative coverage of Francis designed for the internet age.
Defenders of the Vatican say that it has been much more transparent about the pope’s health challenges than it was under Francis’ predecessors. The Vatican has attributed the pope’s evident limp and difficulty walking in recent years to sciatica, a chronic nerve condition that causes, back, hip and leg pain. Francis has called it his “troublesome guest.”
Francis has also attributed his limp to a flat foot. “When you see me walking like a broody chicken, it’s because of that affliction,” he told Nelson Castro, the author of the book “The Health of Popes.” But he also got specific about his physiotherapy to address a narrowing of his intervertebral disc between the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae.
“You should write a book on the health of the popes,” Castro wrote that Francis told him in 2017. “You can start with me: I’ll tell you all about my neuroses.”
Francis told a French author that when he was 42, he saw a psychiatrist for weekly sessions to deal with the stress of Argentina’s military dictatorship. Francis has also talked about being treated by a Chinese acupuncturist for back pain when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires and nearly dying from a gallstone infection decades ago when he was a leader of the country’s Jesuits. Doctors, he has acknowledged, have slimmed down his diet to avoid heart problems.
A biographer of Francis, Austen Ivereigh, wrote in the Catholic journal “The Tablet” in May that “no pope has spoken with such candor about his health, physical and mental, as Francis.” He notes that shortly after his election, the pope told a Bolivian archbishop that he had nearly died in 1979 from oxygen deprivation at a high altitude, losing consciousness and being saved by an oxygen mask and a quick flight to the lowlands.
“They tell the truth, but they tell a part of it,” said Izzo, who has covered multiple popes and seen varying degrees of transparency. “This time it’s really a blackout.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.