Pope Francis has been seen using a wheelchair in recent public appearances, which has led many to wonder why the 85-year-old pontiff requires mobility assistance. The Vatican has confirmed that Pope Francis suffers from knee pain that makes walking difficult, requiring the use of a wheelchair to get around comfortably.
The Pope’s Knee Pain
According to the Vatican, Pope Francis began experiencing severe pain in his right knee around January 2022. Doctors diagnosed the Pope with a torn ligament in his knee, which was likely caused by excessive strain over time. At 85 years old, it is not surprising that the Pope would start to experience joint problems like this.
The torn ligament makes it very painful for the Pope to walk or stand for extended periods. Getting up and down repeatedly also aggravates his injured knee. Using a wheelchair prevents further damage to the knee ligament and allows the Pope to conserve his strength and stamina when making public appearances.
In addition to the torn ligament, the Vatican has indicated that Pope Francis suffers from acute flare ups of pain caused by gout. Gout is a form of inflammatory arthritis that commonly affects the joints in the legs and feet, especially the big toe. The Pope’s gout likely adds to his mobility challenges.
Past Knee and Hip Problems
While the torn knee ligament is responsible for Pope Francis’ current wheelchair use, it is not his first experience with joint problems. Since becoming Pope in 2013, when he was 76 years old, he has dealt with multiple mobility issues.
In 2020, there were reports that Pope Francis was receiving injections for a painful sciatica condition. Sciatica occurs when the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lower back down the legs, gets compressed or irritated, causing radiating pain and numbness. The Pope’s advanced age puts him at higher risk for sciatic nerve pain.
Earlier in his papacy, in 2015, Pope Francis talked about injuring his knee when he was younger. Specifically, he suffered a fracture in his knee after falling while vacationing in the mountains of northern Italy in 1957, when he was 21 years old. The residual effects of this old injury probably contribute to his current knee troubles.
Pope Francis also underwent hip surgery in 2021 to repair a torn ligament in his right hip. He received injections during that time to alleviate his hip and knee pain so he could continue his duties. The Pope’s history of joint injuries, combined with the natural effects of aging, help explain his need for wheelchairs and canes over the last few years.
Upcoming Knee Surgery
To help relieve his ongoing knee issues, Pope Francis has announced he will undergo surgery sometime in 2023. The Vatican stated that the surgery will involve a “partial knee arthroplasty,” which means that damaged portions of the knee will be replaced surgically.
Knee replacement surgery involves removing damaged or deteriorating surfaces of the knee joint and replacing them with artificial components shaped like the normal joint anatomy. Partial knee replacements are smaller procedures where only one side of the knee joint is replaced, such as just the under-surface of the kneecap.
The Pope’s surgery aims to reduce persistent pain and improve function of his right knee. However, even successful surgery will require extensive physical therapy and rehabilitation. It can take 6 weeks or longer to fully recover from a partial knee replacement. This means Pope Francis will likely continue relying on his wheelchair through much of 2023.
Vatican’s Upbeat Message About the Pope’s Health
Despite being confined to a wheelchair recently, the Vatican maintains that the Pope is still capable of performing his duties. They have conveyed optimism about the upcoming knee surgery, stating that the Pope decided to have the procedure now so he can continue his overseas travel and service schedules.
When he met with Catholic bishops in July 2022, Pope Francis told them that while his health is “not brilliant,” he is still able to function and make decisions for himself and the church. He displays continued sharp mental acuity, even if his body is feeling the effects of aging.
Given how energetically Pope Francis has performed during his nearly 10 years as pontiff, it makes sense he would want to undergo surgery that can preserve his abilities to minister globally. While he recognizes physical limitations, he does not appear ready to let them stop him from his duties.
Precedents for Papal Disabilities
Pope Francis is not the first pope to deal with declining mobility and health issues. Modern medicine has enabled recent popes to live into old age, meaning infirmities often emerge during their papacies.
Pope John Paul II, who was pope from 1978 to 2005, also relied on canes and wheelchairs later in his papacy as he dealt with severe Parkinson’s disease symptoms. Yet he continued globe-trotting travels up until just before his death at 84 years old.
Pope John XXIII, who was pope from 1958 to 1963, used a wheelchair extensively after being diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1962 at the age of 81. He cut back his activities near the end but remained pope until his death in June 1963.
Examples like these demonstrate that being wheelchair-bound does not necessarily preclude the Pope from fulfilling his responsibilities. Though mobility aids signal Pope Francis’ physical decline, he shows determination to carry out his role however his health permits.
Temporary Wheelchair Use for Pope’s Lebanon Visit
While the torn knee ligament necessitates Pope Francis’ ongoing use of a wheelchair, there was another reason he used one during his July 2022 papal visit to Lebanon. The Vatican revealed that because he had to rest his knee, he used a wheelchair in Lebanon to conserve his strength for standing and walking during the moments that mattered most.
For instance, when he arrived in Lebanon, the Pope chose to walk down the steps of the plane with a cane to greet the landing ceremony crowd. However, he used a wheelchair for the lengthy airport welcome ceremony before boarding an open car to travel into Beirut. This enabled him to stand and greet crowds during the drive.
Similarly, the Pope opted for a wheelchair at a big youth rally and prayer service so he could walk at key instances like greeting the patriarch. The wheelchair helped make the most of his stamina so he could be on his feet at symbolic opportunities.
How Pope Francis’ Preexisting Conditions Impact Mobility
In addition to knee, hip and leg problems, Pope Francis has a few preexisting medical conditions that relate to his mobility challenges as he ages.
As mentioned, Pope Francis has sciatica affecting his sciatic nerve. Anything putting pressure on the nerve can inflame pain, like standing too long. A wheelchair minimizes pressure on his back and irritated nerve.
The Pope has diverticulosis, which causes small pouches (diverticula) in the intestinal lining. This condition can provoke abdominal pain, especially when standing, potentially motivating wheelchair use until symptoms subside.
Chronic Lung Problems
Pope Francis had part of one lung removed when he was young due to severe respiratory illness. He also suffers from COPD. His lung limitations may make extensive standing difficult. A wheelchair reduces strain on his breathing and chest muscles.
Bone scan results in 2021 showed Pope Francis has arthritis in his spine and knee joints. Arthritis can be extremely painful and is aggravated by too much weight-bearing activity. Wheelchairs are a helpful way to manage arthritis discomfort.
While the Pope pushes through pain barriers to walk when he wants to, the wheelchair probably offers relief from cumulative suffering by resting his joints on busy event days.
How Pope Francis Stays Active Despite Mobility Aids
Using a wheelchair does not prevent Pope Francis from fulfilling his duties or maintaining an active lifestyle:
- He participates in lengthy masses and services while seated in his chair on the altar area.
- He rides in his “popemobile” waving and greeting crowds during foreign visits and pilgrimages.
- He meets with church officials and foreign dignitaries while seated in his wheelchair for extended periods.
- He blesses and interacts with followers from his chair during weekly audiences and appearances.
The Pope has not allowed knee pain or joint issues to stop him from leading global Catholic outreach. His stamina and dedication have not waned even as he takes prudent measures to work around mobility limitations.
Pope Francis’ Message to Others With Mobility Challenges
Pope Francis understands that growing old brings greater crosses. However, he wants his example of persevering despite mobility problems to inspire others suffering from pain or disability:
“It’s true I’m like that, I have my ailments, but I still manage to function. Making this effort of putting up with some adversity that age brings, and especially getting together with people, helps me a lot.”
By pressing forward in his vocation, he demonstrates how to keep contributing to community and pursuing purpose – no matter what physical limitations arise. He models resilience in the face of increasing frailty.
Positive Papal Prospects Despite Health Concerns
Some speculate that Pope Francis may consider retirement if his knee surgery recovery takes too long or proves overly burdensome. However, he has not made any indication he plans to resign over health reasons any time soon.
Pope Francis acknowledges that knee surgery at his age may seem like a big risk. But he believes trusting God will enable him to pull through successfully. He seems focused on maximizing his physical abilities, not preparing to step down.
The Vatican’s positive messaging about the surgery’s simple nature also signals they expect the Pope to resume normal duties post-rehabilitation. Far from anticipating the end of his service, Pope Francis apparently hopes the operation will extend his productive years as pontiff.
Pope Francis’ recent reliance on a wheelchair corresponds with age-related mobility declines rather than suggesting complete physical impairment. Though joint pain and upcoming knee surgery pose challenges, accommodations like wheelchairs, canes and rest breaks allow him to carry on papal activities with his signature passion and dedication. His willingness to undergo surgery before limitations grow too severe demonstrates deep commitment to maintaining an active papacy in service to others. Despite temporary struggles, Pope Francis continues answering his divine calling as compassionately and energetically as his health permits.