Obituary: Professor Francesco Crucitti

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The Independent Culture
FRANCESCO CRUCITTI's was the voice of calm, professional hope that Catholics around the world relied on in 1981 after a Turkish terrorist's bullet came within inches of killing Pope John Paul II in St Peter's Square in Rome.

A surgeon at the Gemelli Hospital of the Sacred Heart Catholic University, Crucitti rushed from the emergency ward at an outlying clinic to lead the team which removed that bullet from the Pope's intestines in a six- hour operation. Then, over the tense days and weeks that followed, he provided regular medical bulletins on John Paul's recovery. With the Catholic world hanging on his every word, Crucitti's manner set worried minds at rest. "He was very good at handling what was certainly not an easy situation," the doctor's long-time assistant Professor Giambattista Doglietto recalled this week.

At the time of the shooting, Crucitti was already a surgeon of some renown. Born in 1930 to a humble family in the southern Reggio Calabria region, he had graduated from medical school at the early age of 22 and gone on to specialise in thoracic, gastric and general surgery. By 1981, he had acquired a chair in surgery at the Catholic University and was, Doglietto said, "a meticulous operating-theatre animal". In 1991 he was made director of the Gemelli Hospital's Institute of Clinical Surgery.

Impressed by his professional competence and human touch, the Pope turned to Crucitti once again in 1992 to have a huge tumour taken from his colon, and again in 1996 to have a rumbling appendix removed.

Before the operation in 1992, Crucitti paid a preparatory visit to the Vatican, a surgery textbook tucked under his arm, ready to explain in detail what he would be doing to the tumour in the Pope's gut, a tumour which, the doctor was to admit much later, was "on the verge of becoming malignant". The Pope, Doglietto said, "is the kind of person who wants to know all about everything". For his most illustrious patient, Crucitti was only too happy to oblige.

Such displays of consideration were responded to in kind earlier this week when, after his weekly audience in the Vatican and before returning to his summer retreat at Castelgandolfo, the Pope visited the Crucitti family home in Via dei Fornaci near the Vatican to pay his last respects. He prayed beside the body before talking with the doctor's family. "I came here to show you just how much I appreciated this man who saved my life," the pontiff told Crucitti's wife Alessandra. The Pope also ordered the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, to officiate at Crucitti's funeral service today.

Crucitti's death comes just four months after the fatal shooting in the Vatican of Alois Estermann, the Swiss Guard officer who also helped keep John Paul alive during the 1981 shooting by throwing himself in front of the Pope as the Turkish gunman Ali Agca took aim for a second shot. Estermann and his wife Gladys were killed by a young guardsman who then committed suicide.

Through Crucitti was vocal in his advice to the Pope to reduce his gruelling timetable and rest if he wished to preside over the 2000 Jubilee Holy Year celebrations, the doctor failed noticeably to take his own advice. By the third time Crucitti operated on the Pope in 1996, he too was seriously ill although, with characteristic reserve on his part, this fact remained a closely guarded secret.

Struck by prostate cancer in the early 1990s, Crucitti had had his tumour operated on quietly in the United States but to no avail and metastasis occurred. This failed to keep him out of his beloved operating theatre. Associates recall him strapped into a surgical corset to keep himself upright in the theatre as the cancer moved to his bones, causing him agonising pain. He continued to practise at the Gemelli Hospital until six weeks ago.

Francesco Crucitti, surgeon: born Reggio Calabria, Italy 17 November 1930; married Alessandra Di Lieto (two sons, one daughter); died Rome 26 August 1998.