Pope Francis held on Wednesday his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square amid widespread rumors that he has been diagnosed with a brain tumor.
The claim, carried by the Italian daily Quotidiano Nazionale on its front page under the headline "the Pope is sick," has been denied as "completely unfounded" by the Vatican.
According to the newspaper, a helicopter bearing the Vatican's white-and-yellow flag was noted landing in January at the San Rossore clinic in Barbaricina, near Pisa.
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According to the report, the helicopter picked up Japanese neurosurgeon Takanori Fukushima, who teaches at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina and collaborates with the Italian clinic, in order to fly him to the Vatican to examine the 78-year-old pontiff.
Francis was diagnosed "a small brain tumor" that can be treated without surgical intervention, the newspaper reported.
The Vatican immediately released a statement which strongly rejected the claim.
"The circulation of entirely unfounded news regarding the health of the Holy Father by an Italian newspaper is gravely irresponsible and unworthy of attention," the Vatican said.
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The statement noted that anyone can see that Francis is well and carrying out a very active schedule.
"I can confirm that the pope is in good health," chief spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said.
"No Japanese doctor has examined the pope in the Vatican and no examinations of the type indicated in the article have been performed," he added.
He said that there have been no arrivals of external parties in the Vatican by helicopter; similarly, there were no arrivals of such type during the month of January.
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According to Lombardi, everybody can be assured the pope is doing just fine.
"If you were in the piazza this morning you would have seen that. And if you go on the trips with him, you know he has a small problem with his legs, but his head is absolutely perfect," he said.
Andrea Cangini, the newspaper's editor-in-chief, is sticking by his story.
"The Vatican's denial is expected and understandable. We have a waited a long time before publishing the news as we wanted to check it out. We have not the slightest doubt about its veracity," Cangini said.
He added the news was published because the right to privacy is less important than the right of public opinion to be informed.
"We decided that that which applies to a Head of State or Government also applies to the Pope," Cangini said.
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Concerns for Francis's health resurfaced in May during his visit to parishioners of the seaside town of Ostia.
"I ask you to pray for me. I am a bit old and a bit sick," he said.
Last year, returning from his South Korean trip, Francis told journalists on the papal plane that he doesn't expects to live long.
"Two or three years and then I'll be off to the Father's house," he said.
The rumors about his health come in the final and delicate days of the Synod of Bishops on the family, which met disagreement among conservative and liberal bishops over issues such as Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, sex, and homosexuality.
Image: Pope Francis. Credit: Benhur Arcayan/Wikimedia Commons.