Vol. 86 March 15, 2013 Papal Medical Fun Facts



popesign1Now that Francis I has succeeded Benedict XVI we should expect some early spring sprouting of stories about Benedict’s medical issues. We already know he had a cardiac pacemaker implanted before he was elected Pope, and that it was “recharged” or “replaced” in a “secret surgical procedure” three months before he retired. He had arthritis (so much for the positive energy of red shoes), a stroke in 1991, and maybe another in 2009 when he fell and hit his head (Oh, NO, one of those currently dreaded “concussions” maybe). Francis I has his own past medical issues, of course.  One of his lungs was removed due to a lung infection in his youth. We will, I’m sure, hear a lot more about both of their medical histories.

A more compelling medical speculation surrounded the death of Pope John Paul I in 1978. His death just 33 days after his election spawned several conspiratorial scenarios  including links to Chicago (“where Al Capone used to rule”) and the Sicilian mafioso (linked mostly by shared bankers). The non-smoker Pope took medicine only for low blood pressure. He was found sitting up in bed with reading material in his lap the morning after sharing a simple meal with others who drank the wine. He drank only water. He was discovered in bed by a nun which, of course, added to the intrigue. Actually she had delivered his morning cup of coffee every day for forty years. His personal physician examined him in his bed, declared him dead of a ‘heart attack”, and a hurried, “poorly supervised” autopsy was performed. John Paul I was not the shortest-lived Pope. Urban VII (1590) died only 13 days after election, but everyone seemed to agree that malaria killed him.

The medical question I have not been able to answer despite my extensive, exhaustive research (at least an hour on Google) is:  Which Pope had the ulnar nerve palsy?
The classic hand gesture of the “Papal Blessing” or “Papal Benediction”, despite erudite analysis by reverent writers on the religious symbolism of his hand and fingers, is, in fact, the result of a nerve palsy of the hand. Even the Vatican tourist guides know this.

There is disagreement over which nerve palsy the originating Pope had. You can find reasoned arguments that it was a median nerve palsy, not an ulnar nerve palsy. Either one results in the curved 3rd and 4th fingers with straight 1st and 2nd ones. The median nerve palsy would result in the gesture if the Pope were trying to make a fist. The ulnar palsy would create the gesture as he tried to wave keeping all fingers straight. The early centuries of the papacy were filled with intrigue, plots, poisonings, warfare, and murder, but somehow I can’t picture the Pope blessing the people with a raised, clenched fist. I vote for him attempting a royal wave, and so align with the ulnar palsy school.

Pope Clement I (92-99 AD) was the third or fourth Bishop of Rome, consecrated by St. Peter himself, and one of his portraits shows him with the classic papal hand gesture.But his portrait was painted at a much later date, so the painter was probably just giving Clement I the “sign of the Pope”. Screen Shot 2013-03-13 at 11.48It doesn’t mean that Clement originated it. For some reason in the back of my brain, the name of Urban keeps peeking out, but there were VIII of them so I couldn’t narrow it down. A more learned source attributes the original gesture to Pius V (1566-1572). Others have noted that the gesture historically has not been restricted only to Popes, and has been depicted in photos and portraits of lots of other clergy.

Cardinal Bishop Fulton Sheen of New York and TV

Bishop Fulton Sheen of New York and TV

One of the oddest elements of a papal election is the use in the conclave of the Sedia Stercoraria (pierced chair) as described by a learned source, a “creative club of independent Rome tour guides”.

 “In 855, some scholars believe a woman named Joan dared to falsify her gender and was nominated as Pope John VIII. As the story goes, no one was aware of her “double identity” until her death when one of the doctors examined her body and discovered that not only she was a woman but a pregnant woman! Scandal was in the air, so to prevent any kind of misleadings the cardinals came up with a very simple method to make sure that pope is a man. After the election the new pontiff needed to proof that he had…we’ll say, the proper equipment to be a pope. The newly elected Pope has to sit on the chair, while one of the cardinals would examine the situation by placing his head under the chair. As the story goes, if everything was ok the cardinal would say “He has two balls, and they are well hung” bringing a cheerful smile on other cardinals’ faces.” 

I doubt that they still use that chair, what with inexpensive rapid DNA testing available.

The Italian bishops were surprised that the Bishop of Milan, Angelo Scola, was not elected, and much to their embarrassment they prematurely released a report that he had been. I, too, was very disappointed that Angelo Scola did not get elected because we all could have called him Pope Scola. … don’t get it?  Re-read that last sentence out loud.

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2 Responses to Vol. 86 March 15, 2013 Papal Medical Fun Facts

  1. Alan Sugar says:

    I always was under the impression that the papal hand gesture was a result of one pope having had Dupuytren’s contracture, not a nerve palsy.

    • hubslist says:

      Dupuytren’s contraction is just that, a contraction of the fascia of the palm that causes the ring (3rd) finger and sometimes the pinky (4th) finger to swing in toward the palm. The fingers don’t usually curl. It is more like the whole straight finger moves toward the palm. Pictures of it on Wikipedia and other sites do not look like the “Papal Blessing” to me. Besides, one cause of ulnar palsy was given as “exerting too much pressure too frequently on a pizza pie cutter”, and that really matched with the Italian connection.

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