Pope Francis was to undergo Wednesday an operation on a painful abdominal hernia, reviving concerns over the 86-year-old’s increasingly fragile health.
Francis arrived mid-morning at the Gemelli hospital in Rome, where he is expected to stay for several days during a recovery period which will see the cancellation of all papal audiences until June 18.
The 86-year-old, who underwent colon surgery in 2021, is suffering from a hernia that is “causing recurrent, painful and worsening” symptoms, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement.
Francis looked in good spirits as he led his weekly general audience at the Vatican on Wednesday, waving to the gathered crowds as he did a round of St Peter’s Square in his popemobile.
He then left for the hospital in his white Fiat 500 car, escorted by police.
Francis is suffering from an incisional hernia, which can form over a scar from a previous surgery, the Vatican said.
“In the early afternoon he will undergo a laparotomy and abdominal wall surgery… under general anaesthesia,” Bruni said, referring to a surgical incision into the abdominal cavity.
A prosthesis will be used to reconstruct the abdominal wall, and “the stay at the health facility will last several days,” Bruni said.
The Vatican said it would not release any further updates until after the operation, which was due to begin at 1400 GMT according to Italian media reports.
Francis retains all his powers as pontiff even while unconscious.
Afterwards, “if there are things that need deciding, urgent things, they will be taken to the pope in hospital,” said Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin.
In the meantime, all the pope’s audiences have been cancelled “as a precautionary measure” until June 18, the Vatican press office told AFP.
The pope had briefly visited the Gemelli on Tuesday for what the Vatican called “clinical tests”.
The Gemelli hospital is the favoured choice of pontiffs, to the point of being dubbed “Vatican 3” by pope John Paul II, who was treated nine times there, spending a total of 153 days.
A large number of journalists had set up camp outside the hospital on Wednesday.
“Do not be afraid, we are with you”, read a message on social media from children at the Vatican-owned Bambino Gesu (Baby Jesus) paediatric hospital, published with drawing of the pope in a hospital bed.
Francis, who has been the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics for a decade, has suffered increasing health issues over the past year.
In July 2021, he underwent surgery at Gemelli for a type of diverticulitis, an inflammation of small bulges or pockets that can develop in the lining of the intestine.
He was discharged after 10 days, but in an interview in January, he said the diverticulitis had returned.
Francis was also hospitalised for three nights at the end of March with a respiratory infection, which was cured with antibiotics.
The pope’s hospital stays have sparked concern and fuelled speculation over his future as pontiff.
Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, who died in December, stepped down in 2013 due to failing health.
For about a year, the pope has had to rely on a wheelchair because of recurring knee pain.
He has said he does not want to have an operation on his knee because of the side-effects he suffered from the general anaesthesia for his colon surgery.
Asked about his health in an interview with the US Spanish-language network Telemundo, broadcast in May, Francis said it was “much better”.
But he said that doctors had caught his respiratory infection just in time.
Francis continues to travel widely, though he acknowledged in July 2022 that he needed to slow down.
“At my age and with this limitation, I have to save myself a little bit to be able to serve the Church,” he said. “Or, alternatively, to think about the possibility of stepping aside.”
In March, however, he insisted that he had no current plans to quit.
On Wednesday, the Vatican released the schedule for the pope’s trip to Portugal in early August, which will be followed by a trip to Mongolia starting August 31.