ROME — Most people start to slow down when they turn 80. Not so with Pope Francis who will celebrate his birthday on December 17. But Francis is no ordinary octogenarian. The Argentinian-Italian is relatively spry for his age, suffering only a few age-related health glitches, including sciatica and lower back pain, all while globetrotting to Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Bolivia, Kenya, Uganda, Cuba, Mexico, the United States, Greece, Armenia, Poland, Georgia and Sweden among his apostolic voyages in the span of just two years.
At the age of 21, he suffered a severe infection, which led to the removal of one of his lungs, but he is not known to suffer any other major health problems—unless superstition counts.
Ahead of his birthday, the Vatican press office had set up a string of new email addresses for well wishers to send their felicitations in seven different languages, including English at PopeFrancis80@vatican.va, Spanish at PapaFrancisco80@vatican.va, and Latin at Papafranciscus80@vatican.80. They even encouraged people to tweet to @Pontifex using the hashtag #pontifex80 so the wishes could be easily collected and given to the pope.
The only problem is that the pope thinks it brings bad luck to anticipate birthday greetings.
On Wednesday during his regular weekly audience, Francis made a confession. “I’ll tell you something that will make you laugh,” he said, smiling nervously. “In my country, expressing greetings ahead of time brings bad luck and those who do it are jinxers.”
Then he went on reluctantly to accept cards and even a cake as he made his way through the crowds, no doubt hoping that his holiness would be enough to ward off any bad luck that might ensue.
It’s not the first time Francis has shown himself a little bit superstitious. Almost since his papacy began in March 2013, he has asked people to pray for him and said on numerous occasions that he “had a feeling” that he would “only last two or three more years,” which some have construed as his wish to ward off death by talking about it.
Whether he is really worried that early birthday greetings will bring him bad luck may never be known, but the significance of his 80th birthday is lost on no one. It’s the age at which cardinals can no longer vote for the next pope, and it is the age that most clerics are asked to resign from their committee and congregations within the Holy See. Pope Benedict XVI was 85 when he resigned, paving the way for the Francis papacy, citing his “deteriorating health” due to his “advanced age.”
Still, Francis doesn’t look like he means to slow down any time soon. He already has plans to visit Brazil, Colombia, India and Indonesia in 2017, and he’s said he would visit Ireland in 2018 and maybe even Panama in 2019. Clearly, he thinks his luck will hold out until then.