Vatican story of obfuscation muddies news on Pope Francis’ health

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The day after Pope John Paul II had a tracheostomy to relieve respiratory problems in 2005, the then Vatican spokesman told reporters he had a breakfast of 10 cookies. . He died soon after.

So when the Vatican spokesman announced in a brief bulletin Tuesday that Francis, 84, was recovering well from colon surgery on Sunday, had rested well, had breakfast, read newspapers and had risen to take a few steps, there was – if not reason to doubt the veracity of the Vatican statement – a lingering cloud of skepticism gained over the real state of the Pope on the well-guarded 10th floor of a Rome hospital.

“In the Vatican, there is a joke that the Pope is still doing well until his death, and even a little bit after that,” said Iacopo Scaramuzzi, a Vatican expert who writes for the Askanews news agency, adding that secrecy results from fear. divisions in the church caused by premature and improper machinations of 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, opacity and Pravda-style messages is well established and has created a communication challenge for itself, especially in the age of social media in which immediate news and updates are Incessant updates are expected and the Pope does not think about the granular details. of his health is necessarily anyone’s business.

Ten days before the apparently scheduled operation, Salvatore Izzo, a Vatican expert and director of the Vatican news site FarodiRoma, said he had spoken to the Pope about his own health issues but had heard nothing from Francis in return for any potential health problems.

The Vatican only reinforced questions about how close and trustworthy it was with the secrecy with which it handled the revelation of the Pope’s operation.

On July 2, Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni released a statement saying the Papal House prefecture announced that the Pope’s general audiences would be suspended for the month for the “usual summer break” and would resume on the 4th. August. Francis, according to the press release, would continue to address the faithful with his weekly Angelus prayer.

On Sunday afternoon, Mr Bruni messaged reporters at 3:20 p.m. on the rarely used Telegram app that Francis, who had part of a lung removed at age 21, had been taken to Gemelli Hospital from Rome in the afternoon ”for“ scheduled surgery ”to treat symptomatic diverticular stenosis of the colon.

But if it was planned, as the Vatican said, it was the first time we heard about it.

The surprise of the announcement sent perhaps unnecessary alarm, and reporters found themselves watching his recent statements – “Pray in a special way: the Pope needs your prayers,” he said in his weekly blessing on June 27 – as if it were medical tea. leaves.

For hours on end, as Italian television ran anonymous leaks about the Pope’s condition and “Innerspace” style photos of grieving settlers, there was no official word on the Pope’s condition.

Shortly before midnight, the Vatican issued a statement with the names of the Pope’s many doctors saying that he had “reacted well to the operation performed under general anesthesia”. On Monday, a short noon bulletin from Mr. Bruni noted that Francis was “in good general condition, alert and breathing on his own” after an operation that lasted about three hours. He said he was to stay in the hospital for about seven days unless there were any complications.

That’s all and it is, say the experts, to the taste of the Pope.

Despite a large staff fueling a fast and agile internal media on the web, creating millions of followers on Twitter and Instagram, Vatican experts say Francis doesn’t want his health or personal affairs to become history.

“He does not want his admission to the hospital to become a spectacle”, said Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert who writes for the Rome-based daily La Repubblica. “He asked for total confidentiality, and that’s where the rare bulletins come from. It is simply his style.

Vatican advocates argue that much has changed since the days of Francis’ predecessors. Pope John Paul II was clearly ill before the Vatican officially addressed the issue of his health. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, his spokesperson who attended medical school in his youth, drew internal criticism against Vatican officials in 1996 when he indirectly admitted that the Pope had Parkinson’s disease . And the investigation into the 1998 murder of a commander of the Pope’s Swiss Guards, his wife and an underling was closed three hours after the bodies were found 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 enthusiastic Italian media as easels to paint their conspiracies and spread their gossip . In 2012, the Pope’s own butler leaked private documents filled with accusations to Italian journalists, an extremely embarrassing scandal that came to be known as the Vatileaks. Benoît retired soon after.

In March 2018, Mgr. Dario Vigano, the head of the Vatican’s communications department, resigned after evidence emerged that he forged a letter from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to make the former pontiff appear more favorable to a series of books on the theology of Francois. The photos of the letter circulated by the Vatican communications office purposely blurred two lines in which Benedict admitted that he had not actually read the books. Despite this, Monsignor Vigano maintained his influence in Vatican communications.

The following year, the Vatican also edited the pope’s remarks supporting civil unions based on an interview with a Mexican television reporter, a censorship that was only revealed when a documentary filmmaker accidentally gained access to the original recording left on the floor of the editing room.

And the church has hired former high-level Vatican journalists to run an internal media outlet, called Vatican News, which has the appearance of an independent news portal, regularly promoting information about the stories of the church, most recently the indictments of Vatican officials on financial charges. crimes. He delivers interviews with leading Cardinals and frustrates Catholic media competitors. But it is essentially a sleek news outlet and a filter against the negative coverage of Pope Francis designed for the internet age.

Vatican advocates say it has been much more transparent about the Pope’s health issues than under Francis’ predecessors. The Vatican attributed the Pope’s obvious lameness and difficulty walking in recent years to sciatica, a chronic nerve disease that causes pain in the back, hips and legs. Francis called him his “troublesome guest”.

Francois also attributed his lameness to a flat foot. “When you see me walking like a broiler chicken, it’s because of this affliction,” he told Nelson Castro, the author of the book “The health of the popes”. But he also clarified his physiotherapy to treat a narrowing of his intervertebral disc between the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae.

“You should write a book on the health of the popes,” wrote Mr. Castro that Francis told him in 2017. “You can start with me: I’ll tell you everything about my neuroses. “

Francis told a French author that at age 42 he saw a psychiatrist for weekly sessions to deal with the stress of Argentina’s military dictatorship. Francis also spoke of being treated by a Chinese acupuncturist for back pain when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires and almost died of a gallstone infection decades ago when he was a leader of the Jesuits of the country. Doctors, he admitted, cut back on his diet to avoid heart problems.

A biographer of Francis, Austen Ivereigh, wrote in the Catholic newspaper “The Tablet” in May that “no pope has spoken with such frankness about his health, physical and mental, as Francis”. He notes that shortly after his election, the Pope told a Bolivian archbishop that he nearly died in 1979 from high altitude oxygen starvation, was unconscious and saved by an oxygen mask and a quick flight to the plains.

“They are telling the truth, but they are telling part of it,” said Mr. Izzo, who has covered several popes and seen varying degrees of transparency. “This time it’s really a blackout.”

Emma Bubola, Gaia Pianigiani and Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting.


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