dive into the intriguing history of the health of the popes

dive into the intriguing history of the health of the popes

Pope Francis, accompanied after the weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, April 27, 2022.

Argentinian doctor and journalist, Nelson Castro publishes an investigation into the health of the popes (The Health of the Popes. Medicine, conspiracies and faith, from Leo XIII to Francis, Payot, 300 pages, 22 euros) through history, from Leo XIII to the current sovereign pontiff François, whom he interviewed twice. Overview of the main lessons of this unpublished work.

The media changed everything

Before the pontificate of Leo XIII (1810-1903), the state of health of the popes was subject to absolute, sacred secrecy. Only their death – imminent or confirmed – is the subject of official communications from the ecclesiastical authorities. But things changed in the nineteenthe century: the rise of the written press encouraged the leaking of information and the spreading of rumours. In 1896, the health of Leo XIII was the subject of so much speculation – in the United States in particular – that the pope decided to appear in front of the camera to show that he was in good shape. He thus becomes the first head of the Church to be filmed.

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The film is kept in the Vatican archives. “We see the pope, then 86 years old, walking with his back slightly bent with the help of a cane, with a smile on his face”, evokes Nelson Castro. It is also the first time that he grants his blessing in front of a camera.

The media “fourth power” has steadily gained in power in the 20e century, for better or for worse… On the death of Pius XII (1876-1958), one of his personal doctors, Riccardo Galeazzi-Lisicaused a scandal by sending photos of the sovereign pontiff on his deathbed to the magazine Paris Match.

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In another register, in the middle of the 1960s, the Vatican communicated willy-nilly about the operation, “routine among men of a certain age”which Paul VI (1887-1978) must undergo, carefully avoiding to pronounce the word “prostate”… The popes must each time deal with the curiosity of the public and the indiscretions of the media. “If I want to know something about my health, I just have to open the newspaper”would even have joked John Paul II (1920-2005).

Small stories in the big

Heads of state and religious leaders, the popes are also actors in history. Thus, in 1914, when the First World War set Europe ablaze, Pius X (1835-1914) multiplied his speeches to ease tensions – in vain… “I suffer for all who die on the battlefieldhe would have concluded. Oh this war! I feel that this war will be my death. »

Pope Pius X (1835-1914) in 1903.

In August 1914, less than two months after the Sarajevo bombing and the official outbreak of the conflict, the Pope contracted acute bronchitis which continued to worsen. The ecclesiastical authorities evoke a “imminent danger of death”while the Italian daily The Grandstand publishes on August 20 a column entitled “Pope Pius X lives his last moments”. In fact, he died the same day of publication.

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