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Colleen DulleDecember 12, 2023
Pope Francis, walking with a cane, arrives in the Paul VI Audience Hall for his weekly general audience at the Vatican Dec. 6, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Pope Francis turns 87 next week and has shown almost no sign of slowing down. “Almost” because, on doctor’s orders, he canceled his planned visit to Dubai for COP28, the annual United Nations climate conference.

He was scheduled to be in Dubai Dec. 1-3, where he was going to hold some 30 bilateral meetings over the course of five hours and deliver two speeches. Instead, beset with bronchitis, he stayed in Rome, where he was unable to deliver most of his public addresses for more than a week. On Sunday, Dec. 3, a Vatican monsignor read the pope’s Angelus catechesis via video stream while the pope, looking tired, gave the blessing but otherwise sat silently next to him.

It was a jarring sight for those accustomed to seeing the pope keep a routine that even a much younger person would struggle with. He wakes up at 4:30 a.m., prays and celebrates Mass, then holds his morning meetings—usually around five to seven meetings each morning, according to the Holy See’s daily bulletin—followed by a 1 p.m. lunch, a 45-minute siesta, and then private meetings and phone calls until his 8 p.m. dinner and 9 p.m. bedtime.

He also works weekends.

The pope has eschewed the papal vacation home at Castel Gandolfo, repurposing it as a museum. Instead, he spends his summer holidays working in the Vatican, though without his two weekly public audiences and with fewer public meetings. Ordinarily, he spends this time writing as well as reading, listening to music and meeting with friends.

That’s not to mention his international trips—usually about five per year—all of which boast packed schedules like the Dubai trip.

But while his pastoral visits have stayed consistent, his hospital visits have increased.

Pope Francis was hospitalized for nine days in June following an abdominal surgery that ordinarily takes three months to heal. Within that three-month period, he traveled to Portugal and Mongolia. He previously had a colon surgery in 2021 that kept him in the hospital for 10 days.

In March of this year, he was hospitalized for four days with bronchitis, making this his latest bout of the sickness his second in a year. (A rumor that was circulated to discredit Francis at the last conclave suggested he had only one lung; the Vatican clarified shortly after Francis’ election that he only had part of a lung removed. In a 2018 book with the Argentine physician and journalist Nelson Castro, the pope said that he had only had cysts removed from the top lobe of his right lung.)

At times, he has been a “charming but stubborn” patient, according to Atlético Madrid team doctor José María Villalón who treated Pope Francis for knee pain. That pain, the pope said, came from a strained ligament in his right knee that caused a fracture. The problem seems to have peaked in late 2022: During his visit to Canada that year, the pope was visibly in pain getting into and out of chairs; the same year, he postponed two other trips to southern Africa and Lebanon because of his mobility issues. (Pope Francis was able to travel to South Sudan in early 2023.)

Despite the pain, the pope insisted on not having knee surgery, saying he had reacted poorly to the anesthesia used in his 2021 colon surgery. Instead, he underwent a mix of therapies that used magnets and lasers, plus physical therapy, weight loss to take some strain off the knee, and, when all else failed, the pope once quipped, a shot of tequila.

Reports throughout this year have said the pope’s pain has significantly improved, although he often uses a wheelchair.

With his 87th birthday just around the corner, on Dec. 17, Francis has become one of the oldest popes in history. He seems focused on cementing his legacy through the ongoing synodal process, which America's Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, has called “the most transformative event in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council,” and through the appointment of his key ally, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández, as the Vatican’s new doctrinal chief.

But his forward sprint continues to be interrupted by health hurdles that will become more difficult to clear as he grows older. He now faces a choice between slowing down or risk facing some future ailment he cannot fully overcome.

[Read more: Pope Francis is one of the oldest popes in history—but he’s showing no sign of slowing down.]

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