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When Vatican PR makes the Pope look bad

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 13, 2023

To avoid any misunderstanding let me begin by saying that what follows is not a criticism of Pope Francis. It is a criticism of the Vatican press office.

Last Monday at an audience with the Conference of European Rabbis, Pope Francis did not deliver his prepared speech, explaining that he was not feeling well. That’s perfectly understandable, isn’t it? As he approaches his 87th birthday, we can expect the Pope to make some concessions to his declining health—as he should.

However the Vatican press office, no doubt hoping to ward off speculation about the Pope’s medical condition, rushed out the explanation that the problem was only “a bit of a cold,” and called attention to the fact that the Pontiff kept all the other appointments on his Monday schedule.

Yes, he did. And the next day’s offerings from the Vatican’s PR machinery included photos of the smiling Pope embracing children from 84 nations at a “Children Meet the Pope” gathering in the Paul VI auditorium.

Now I ask you: If you are suffering from a cold, should you be hugging little children? For that matter, if you are a senior citizen in uncertain health, should you be spending your time in large crowds of young people who might be bringing fresh germs from 84 different countries?

Again I am not criticizing the Pope. I do not think that he was irresponsibly compromising his own health or the health of the children. What I am suggesting is that the problem was not “a bit of a cold.” (Did anyone notice that the Pontiff was sniffling?) This does not necessarily imply that the Pope’s problem was something more serious. He may simply have been tired—understandably so at his age. He may not have had a good night’s sleep—again understandable, given his chronic knee pain. He does not owe me any explanation for his decision not to read a speech. My point is that by offering an implausible explanation, when no explanation was necessary, the Vatican press office created a problem.

This admittedly minor incident reminded me of the more serious episode that occurred in March, when Pope Francis was taken to the hospital by ambulance, in obvious distress, after a public audience. At first the Vatican tried the line that he was taken to the hospital for “previously scheduled” tests. But if the hospital visit had been booked in advance, why was an ambulance required? Why did he suddenly appear to be having trouble breathing, after having spoken normally during his public audience?

Once under hospital care, the Pope’s condition improved immediately, and he was soon released, joking with reporters that the doctors did not know what was wrong with him. But the press office apparently did, telling the world that the Pontiff had been afflicted with “severe bronchitis.”

Hmmm. A bout with “severe bronchitis” usually does not come and go quickly, particularly not when it strikes an elderly man. As I observed at the time:

If he had “severe bronchitis,” why was he not coughing frequently during his Wednesday audience? And how did he recover so quickly? (An 86-year-old man with severe bronchitis would be expected to keep coughing for at least a few days even after treatment with antibiotics.)

And two days after he arrived at the Gemelli Hospital with this “severe bronchitis,” the Pope was on his feet, visiting the pediatric ward, encouraging the young patients and baptizing a newborn child. Now what responsible adult, still recovering from a severe infection, would bring that virus into a ward full of sick children? What sort of hospital would allow the visit?

No, I don’t think the Pope was jeopardizing the children’s health—in March or last week. In both cases I think the Vatican’s PR department, in a pointless effort to cover up whatever medical condition the Pope actually has, has taken a public line that, if taken seriously, would make him look bad.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: a son of Mary - Nov. 20, 2023 2:37 PM ET USA

    Thanks Phil! It’s always the staffers who do nonsense like this. They obfuscate when it’s not needed or expected. As you point out, the Holy Father is 87 and we all get it, he may not feel up to par all the time. In spite of ill health, he presses on. The rabbis probably really needed to hear some words of wisdom especially now with antisemitism on the rise. God bless him!

  • Posted by: feedback - Nov. 14, 2023 10:01 AM ET USA

    Common characteristic of these PR statements - whoever stands behind them - is the lack of sense of responsibility for the Church before God.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 13, 2023 10:17 PM ET USA

    Astute. Vatican PR makes you think the Vatican operates as a bureaucracy, practiced at spinning the truth. They should pay attention when Francis says that bishops are not corporate managers of secular enterprises.