Pope Francis catches a scarf thrown by a worshipper as he greets the crowd from the popemobile before his weekly general audience at St Peter’s square. — AFP
Pope Francis catches a scarf thrown by a worshipper as he greets the crowd from the popemobile before his weekly general audience at St Peter’s square. — AFP

VATICAN CITY: The Vatican yesterday dismissed a report that Pope Francis has a brain tumor as baseless, with a spokesman challenging anyone who thinks the pontiff is seriously ill to try keeping up with him. Quotidiano Nazionale (QN), the newspaper which made the claim, said it stood by its story that a “small dark spot” had been detected on the 78-year-old pontiff’s brain several months ago.

The paper said it was discovered by Japanese neurosurgeon Takanori Fukushima, a world expert on skull base tumors who is partly based at the San Rossore di Barbaricina clinic near Pisa in central Italy. According to the report, the professor and a medical team were flown by helicopter to the Vatican to examine Francis and concluded that the tumor was treatable without surgery.

Quotidiano based its story largely on the supposed account of a nurse at the clinic who reportedly saw medical notes under Francis’s real name, Jorge Mario Bergoglio. But Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, insisted the claims were baseless-and that he had checked them with the pope himself.

“I can confirm that no Japanese doctor came to the Vatican to see the pope and there were no examinations of the type indicated in the article,” he told hundreds of journalists in an unusually well-attended Vatican press briefing. He repeated an early condemnation of the report as “an irresponsible act that was completely unjustified and unspeakable.”

Clearly exasperated, the Vatican media chief resorted to irony to get his message across. “If you had to run after him during his overseas trips, you’d know,” (he is in good health), Lombardi said. “He does have some problems with his legs but the head seems to me to be working absolutely perfectly.”

‘Not long to live’

Fukushima did meet Pope Francis but it was in October 2014, according to a post on the surgeon’s Japanese blog, which does not indicate any professional connection. Andrea Cangini, the director of Quotidiano, said he had anticipated the Vatican reaction. “This denial is understandable and to be expected,” he said. “We waited a long time before publishing the report in order to carry out every possible check. We don’t have the slightest doubt that it is founded.”

Pope Francis has maintained an intense work schedule throughout his two and a half years in the Vatican, eschewing the long summer breaks enjoyed by many of his predecessors. He has looked extremely weary at times and in several interviews he has made reference, sometimes light-heartedly, to an apparent belief that he only has a few years to live.

At his weekly audience yesterday, the pope looked cheerful but also pale and tired as he made comments touching on the theme of failing health. Recalling how one of his predecessors, John Paul II, had remained at the head of the Church until his death in 2005 despite suffering from Parkinson’s disease, the pope said sick people should follow his example and “bear with joy the cross of suffering as he (John Paul II) taught us.”

Despite fatigue and a constant battle with sciatica, Francis shows no sign of slowing down. His recent nine-day trip to Cuba and the United States was one of the most grueling yet and he is preparing for a five-day visit to Kenya, Uganda and the conflict-torn Central African Republic at the end of November.

There has also been no sign of his intellectual energy diminishing as he has participated in an ongoing synod of clerics which has seen his vision of how Church teaching on issues such as divorce and homosexuality should evolve meet with resistance from conservatives. Vatican expert Iacopo Scaramuzzi said the scare story about the pope’s health could be related to tensions in the church at a time when allegations of Machiavellian skullduggery abound. “The timing of this news, exactly when a turbulent synod is concluding, is curious,” he told AFP. “What is striking is that the article does not clearly reveal its sources and the Vatican has made such a vehement denial.” – AFP