Rome, Saturday February 16, 2019. The morning is radiant. The city is bathed by a full sun that, in the middle of an absolutely diaphanous sky, seems to transform winter into a sketch of spring. The Vatican gardens show off all their beauty. An intense movement is observed in his surroundings: priests, bishops, cardinals, staff of the master, gardeners, the Swiss guards and the security personnel coming and going amid a thunderous silence. Everything looks flawless. The scene is fairy.
After crossing the garden, I am already in the inner courtyard of the Apostolic Palace. The guards examine my invitation note and let me pass. One of the butlers accompanies me to the elevator that takes us to the third floor. There, another butler will lead me through different areas of the Palace – in which history is present at every step – to a waiting room. It is 10:45. In the enclosure there are eight armchairs upholstered in finely patterned red corduroy, with gold legs and trim. At 10.55, the door opens and Monsignor Luis Rodrigo, an Argentine priest, appears. He is slim, of medium height, and displays an exquisite kindness. He invites me to see two splendid paintings by Rafael, the great Italian painter of the Renaissance, and a series of handicrafts from the original peoples of Peru that were given to the Pope during one of his trips. At 10:58 the door of the library opens and a cardinal comes out with whom the Supreme Pontiff has had a fifteen-minute meeting. “In two minutes he receives you,” Monsignor Rodrigo tells me. And at 11 o’clock – as it was scheduled – the library door opens. And there Francisco is waiting for me.
I see him smiling and animated. He shakes my hand firmly. His face is fresh, youthful.
His gaze is lively. He knows that he is going to star in a unique event: for the first time a pope is going to speak at length and in detail about his health. It will be a long one hour and fifteen minute interview that will make history. I see him happy.
“How is your health, Holiness?”
-Very good. Thank God I am very well. I feel energetic and eager. I am 82 years old and I am full.
—During your life you suffered from some delicate and serious ailments.
-Yes. I went through delicate moments.
“Being younger, he suffered from a severe lung condition.” As was?
—It was 1957. I was in my second year of seminary at the Seminary of
Devotee. That winter there had been a strong flu epidemic that affected many of the seminarians. Among them was me. But the truth is that my case evolved in a more torpid way. My other colleagues recovered in a few days and without any sequelae. On the other hand, I continued to suffer from a feverish picture that did not subside. At that time there was a brother in the seminary who had been a locomotive engineer and who had been assigned the tasks of a nurse, a nurse who handled cases with a rather curious rule. For pain he gave Cafiaspirina. For diarrhea-type digestive symptoms, he gave sulfa. And for skin conditions he gave tinctures based on iodine. So I took the aspirin as he directed, but without getting any improvement. The fever continued.
“Faced with this situation, the director of the seminary told me:“ You are not well. I am going to take you to the Syrian Lebanese Hospital to be examined and to do the corresponding studies in order to know what is happening to you ”. So the next morning, he got me in his car and drove me to the hospital. The director, Dr. Apud, saw me there, who, upon learning of my clinical condition, called Dr. Zorraquín, a prominent pulmonologist who, after reviewing me, ordered laboratory studies and chest X-rays. At that time there was no computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging. Upon viewing the X-rays, the specialist found three cysts in the upper lobe of the right lung. There was also a bilateral pleural effusion that caused me pain and shortness of breath. Therefore, after carefully analyzing my case, he proceeded to perform a pleural puncture to extract the fluid. After that, they began to treat me and, by the month of October, when I was already recovered, they announced that they had to operate to remove the affected lobe because there was the possibility of a relapse. Naturally, I accepted the operation. It was a difficult time.
“How did you experience it?” Did you think you might have cancer?
“I was 21 years old.” At that age one feels omnipotent. Not that I wasn’t worried, but I always had the conviction that I was going to be cured. The operation was a great operation. The scar from the surgical incision they made runs from the base of the right hemithorax to its apex. It was a bloody intervention. According to what they told me, they worked with the Finochietto separator [se trata de un separador intercostal a cremallera que se usa en las operaciones torácicas] and it must have been a lot of force. For this reason, when I recovered from the anesthesia, the pain I felt was very intense.
“Did you have any alteration in respiratory function?”
-To be honest no. The recovery was complete and I never felt any limitation in my
activities. As you have seen, for example, in the different trips that I have made and that you have covered, I should never have to restrict or cancel some of the scheduled activities. I never experienced fatigue or shortness of breath [disnea]. As the doctors have explained to me, the right lung expanded and covered the entire ipsilateral hemithorax. And the expansion has been so complete that, if he is not advised of the antecedent, only a first-rate pulmonologist can detect the lack of the excised lobe.
The lung issue was about to play a key role in the attempt by the opponents of then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to prevent his election. The one who gave an account of this was the Archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga: “Certainly, I cannot say what happened inside the Sistine during the conclave, but I can say this: when the figure of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires began to emerge as the new possible pope, they began to move to stop God’s plan that was about to be realized. Someone who was supporting another papable cardinal, in effect, spread the rumor in Santa Marta that Bergoglio was ill because he was missing a lung. It was at this point that I took courage. I spoke to other cardinals and said, ‘OK, I’m going to go ask the archbishop of Buenos Aires if these things are really true.’ When I went to see him, I apologized for the question
that I was about to ask him. Cardinal Bergoglio was very surprised, but confirmed that apart from a little sciatica and a small operation on his right lung to remove a cyst when he was young, he did not have any major health problems. His response was a real relief: the Holy Spirit, despite the obstacles of the cliques, was blowing on the right person.
Noted journalist Gerard O’Connell collected another valuable testimony about the intrigues surrounding Francisco’s lung condition. It corresponds to the Spanish cardinal Abril Santos y Casteló, who said that he also approached Bergoglio and asked him the same question at the end of lunch. “Is it true that you have only one lung?” The Archbishop of Buenos Aires denied this and explained that in 1957, when he was 21 years old, he had undergone surgery to remove the upper lobe of his right lung due to three cysts and that, since then, that lung has functioned with total normality.
“Have you ever been psychoanalyzed?”
“I’ll tell you how things were.” I never psychoanalyzed. Being provincial of the
Jesuits, in the terrible days of the dictatorship, in which I had to take people in hiding to get them out of the country and thus save their lives, I had to handle situations that I did not know how to deal with. I then went to see a lady — a great woman — who had helped me in reading some psychological tests of the novices. So for six months, I consulted her once a week.
“Was she a psychologist?”
“No, he was a psychiatrist.” Throughout those six months, he helped me position myself in terms of
way to handle the fears of that time. Imagine what it was like to take a person hidden in the car – only covered by a blanket – and go through three military checkpoints in the Campo de Mayo area. The tension it generated in me was enormous.
“What else was the consultation with the psychiatrist useful for?”
—The treatment with the psychiatrist also helped me to locate myself and learn to manage my
anxiety and avoid being rushed when making decisions. The making process
decision making is always complex. And the advice and observations that she gave me
they were very helpful. She was a very capable professional and, fundamentally, a very good person. I am extremely grateful to you. His teachings are still very useful to me today.
“Was it difficult for you to make this kind of inquiry?”
-Do not. I am very open and at that point, I have a very consolidated position. I’m
convinced that every priest must know human psychology. There are those who know it from the experience of the years, but the study of psychology is necessary for a priest. What I don’t see at all clear is that a priest does psychiatry due to the problem of transference and countertransference, because there the roles are confused and then, the priest stops being a priest to become the therapist, with a level of involvement that later makes it very difficult to distance yourself.
“You spoke to me several times about your neuroses.” How aware are you of them?
“Neuroses must be fed mate.” Not only that, you have to caress them too. Are
companions of the person throughout his life. I remember once reading a book that really interested me and made me laugh out loud. His title was Be Joyful You’re Neurotic, by the American psychiatrist Louis E. Bisch. It is something I mentioned in the press conference I gave on the flight back from Seoul to Rome. I said: ‘I am very attached to the habitat’ of neurosis and added that, after that reading, I decided to take care of them. That is, it is very important to be able to know where the bones squeak. Where are they and what are our spiritual ills. Over time, one becomes aware of his neuroses.
—In general, they are grouped into anxious neurosis, depressive neurosis, reactive neurosis and
post-traumatic neurosis. What or what are yours?
“Anxious neurosis.” Wanting to do everything now and now. That’s why you have to know how to brake. We must apply the famous proverb attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: “Dress me slowly because I’m in a hurry.” I have quite tamed anxiety. When I am faced with a situation or have to face a problem that causes me anxiety, I cut it short. I have dis
different methods of doing it. One of them is listening to Bach. It calms me down and helps me analyze problems in a better way. I confess that over the years I have managed to put a barrier to the entrance of anxiety in my spirit. It would be dangerous and harmful for me to make decisions under a state of anxiety. The same happens with the sadness produced by the impossibility of solving a problem. It is also important to master it and know how to handle it. It would be equally harmful to make decisions dominated by anguish and sadness. That is why I say that the person must be attentive to neurosis, since it is something constitutive of their being.
“Do you think of death?”
“Are you afraid of him?”
-Not at all.
“How do you imagine his death?”
“Being a pope, whether in office or emeritus.” And in Rome. I am not going back to Argentina.