ROME (AP) — Pope Francis skipped an annual procession to a Roman basilica on Thursday as he takes it easy ahead of a jam-packed trip to southern Italy this weekend.
The Vatican has denied media speculation that the 77-year-old Francis is sick. News reports have zeroed in on the fact that Francis, who only has one full lung, canceled his general audiences for July. Francis canceled his weekly general audiences in July last year as well, as have popes for years during the hot summer months.
Still, Francis appears to have taken to heart advice expressed privately by some aides that he should cut back his frantic work pace, particularly to rest up before big events.
On Thursday, he decided to skip the 1.5 kilometer (mile-long) procession from one Roman basilica to another. He did however preside over a nearly three-hour outdoor service at the start of the procession.
Francis, who often walks with a limp because of a bad back and knees, actually broke with papal tradition when he walked the procession route last year in his first year as pope.
For his entire papacy, Pope Benedict XVI participated in the procession by riding on a flat-bed truck to spare him the walk. Pope John Paul II did the same in the final years of his papacy.
Francis on Saturday travels to the southern tip of Italy, the Calabrian town of Cassano all'Ionio, for a 12-hour marathon visit. After a 90-minute helicopter ride from the Vatican, Francis will meet with inmates at a prison, visit the sick at a hospice center, meet with diocesan priests, share lunch with the poor, visit the elderly in a retirement community and then, at the end of the day, celebrate an open-air Mass. In all, he'll make six stops and deliver two speeches and a homily before returning to the Vatican by helicopter.
Prior to his similarly grueling trip to the Middle East last month, Francis also rested up ahead of time, cancelling a planned parish visit.
There is no sign he is cutting back on travel, however: The Vatican just announced a packed itinerary for his Aug. 14-18 trip to South Korea, and Francis himself revealed over the weekend that he plans to go to Albania for a day in September. His 2015 agenda includes a quick visit to Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January, followed by an expected trip to the United States in September.
Last week, Francis canceled a few audiences because he had a stomach bug. He was back in form after two days of rest.
Francis recently acknowledged that the strain of being a pope was getting to him. "I need extra prayers," he told the faithful during a visit to the Sant'Egidio community last weekend, adding that "my work can be unhealthy."
Francis has put on weight since his election. Friends from Argentina joke it's because they keep plying him with sweets made with the Argentine spread dulce de leche when they visit. He has certainly cut back on the exercise he got zipping around Buenos Aires on public transport. And he no longer cooks for himself, now having full meals prepared for him by the Vatican hotel. Observers note his tastes don't necessarily go in the direction of lean protein and vegetables.
That said, Francis seems content to leave his fate in God's hands. Asked in a recent interview with a Spanish newspaper why he doesn't take more security precautions, such as a bullet-proof popemobile, Francis quipped:
"It's true, something could happen to me. But let's be realistic: at my age, I don't have much to lose."
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield