Rebecca Tyrrel: Anyone tempted to ride in the Holy Heli should be aware of the Pope’s medical history


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Who knew that the Pope has a private pilot's licence, and that he likes to fly the papal helicopter to his summer palace in Castel Gandolfo, 15 miles south-east of Rome?

The make of vehicle is not recorded, but we do know it is not an Apache as used by Prince Harry for firing on Afghans. Nor is there any record of precisely when Benedict XVI earnt his wings. Considering the lack of aeronautical opportunities in the Holy See (although archangels, cherubs and other supernatural fliers are always welcome), it must have been when he was plain Joseph Ratzinger back in Germany, at some point in the long interregnum between leaving the Hitler Youth and becoming a leading adviser to predecessor John Paul II and doctrinal enforcer in the Vatican.

Perhaps this is less surprising than it at first sight appears. For a Vicar of Christ widely regarded as a severe traditionalist, Benedict shows quite a taste for modernity. As he so presciently observed on receiving an iPod nano from Vatican Radio on the occasion of the station's 75th birthday, "computer technology is the future".

He also approved the Benedictaphone, a gadget that allows you to record messages and play them back in a sombre, Pope voice. And he seems to enjoy a bit of flash. He is the first Pope in decades to revive the proto-Louboutin-style papal shoes, which have bright red leather on the soles as well as the top – an odd choice for a man who likes to call himself "a simple, humble labourer in the vineyard of the Lord", but a dashing sight no doubt on the feet of a chopper pilot.

Regardless of the footwear involved, anyone tempted to accept the offer of a ride in the Holy Heli should be aware of this 85-year-old's medical history. He suffered a haemorrhagic stroke that compromised his vision in 1991, and another small stroke soon after the white smoke rose to announce his election in 2005. A year after that, a French Cardinal revealed that the Pope has a heart condition for which he takes drugs, and what the Vatican later insisted was a "routine heart examination" was rumoured by one Italian paper to be a procedure in preparation for a multiple bypass.

Ultimately, I suppose, the decision as to whether to cadge a ride to Castel Gandolfo would come down, like so much else in the Holy Father's world, to a question of faith.

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