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Pope Francis Reflects on Almost Dying of the Flu at 21 in New Book About Navigating the Pandemic

Sam Gillette
·4-min read

Vatican Pool - Corbis/Getty Pope Francis

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pope Francis wrote a book to help people navigate adversity, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, in which he reveals that he suffered from a near-death experience as a young man.

Pope Francis was 21 years old when he almost died of the flu — and writes that he knows what it's like to "struggle to breathe."

"When I got really sick at the age of twenty-one I had my first experience of limit, of pain and loneliness," the head of the Catholic Church, 83, writes. "It changed the way I saw life. For months, I didn’t know who I was, and whether I would live or die. The doctors had no idea whether I’d make it either."

He continues: "I remember hugging my mother and saying: 'Just tell me if I’m going to die.'"

Pope Francis explains that he was was in his second year of training for the priesthood at a seminary in Buenos Aires when he was rushed to the hospital.

"I remember the date: August 13, 1957. I got taken to hospital by a prefect who realized mine was not the kind of flu you treat with aspirin," Pope Francis writes. "Straightaway they took a liter and a half of water out of the lung, and I remained there fighting for my life."

ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty The pope

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"The following November they operated to take out the upper right lobe of one of the lungs," he adds. "I have some sense of how people with coronavirus feel as they struggle to breathe on ventilators."

Let Us Dream, which published on Tuesday, includes these types of personal anecdotes and lessons the pope has learned from watching others to inspire action in the face of tragedy. Pope Francis explains how the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed other pandemics of the world, like climate change, poverty, and the dangers of individualism. Rather than try to return to the same state, he encourages readers to push through current challenges to help make a better world for everyone. In Let Us Dream, Pope Francis celebrates the selflessness of the health care professionals who continue to battle the virus, the anti-racism protests he's seen across the globe, the power of female leadership, and the importance of serving the poor.

"In the trials of life, you reveal your own heart: how solid it is, how merciful, how big or small," he writes in the prologue of Let Us Dream. "Normal times are like formal social situations: you never have to reveal yourself. You smile, you say the right things, and you come through unscathed, without ever having to show who you really are. But when you’re in a crisis, it’s the opposite. You have to choose. And in making your choice you reveal your heart."

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After his own traumatic experience in seminary school, Pope Francis explains he learned a number of lessons.

Not only did Pope Francis realize his true calling while in recovery, he writes that he learned to "depend on the goodness and wisdom of others" during a crisis. He also learned how to best comfort the ill, specifically the "importance of avoiding cheap consolations."

"People came in to tell me I was going to be fine, how with all that pain I’d never have to suffer again—really dumb things, empty words, said with good intentions but which never reached my heart," Pope Francis explains in Let Us Dream.

"The one who spoke most deeply to me, with her silence, was one of the women who marked my life, Sister María Dolores Tortolo," he continues. "Her presence, her silence, was deeply consoling. After that experience I made the decision, when visiting the sick, to speak as little as possible. I just hold their hands."

Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future is on sale now.