The Vatican on Wednesday dismissed an Italian media report that Pope Francis has a curable brain tumour as "unfounded and seriously irresponsible."
Quotidiano Nazionale (QN), the newspaper which made the claim, said it stood by its story that a "small dark spot" had been detected on the 78-year-old pontiff's brain several months ago.
The paper said it was discovered by Japanese neurosurgeon Takanori Fukushima, a world expert on skull base tumours who is partly based at the San Rossore di Barbaricina clinic near Pisa in central Italy.
According to the report, the professor and a medical team were flown by helicopter to the Vatican to examine Francis, concluding that the tumour was treatable without surgery.
Quotidiano based its story largely on the supposed account of a nurse at the clinic who reportedly saw medical notes under Francis's real name, Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
But the Vatican's senior spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, insisted the claims were baseless.
"The publication of completely unfounded reports on the health of the holy father by an Italian newspaper is seriously irresponsible and not worthy of attention," Lombardi said in a statement.
"As everyone can see, the pope continues to engage in his intense activity without any interruption and in absolutely normal fashion."
- 'Not long to live' -
Andrea Cangini, the director of Quotidiano, said he had anticipated the Vatican reaction.
"This denial is understandable and to be expected," he said. "We waited a long time before publishing the report in order to carry out every possible check. We don't have the slightest doubt that it is founded."
Pope Francis has maintained an intense work schedule throughout his two and a half years in the Vatican, eschewing the long summer breaks enjoyed by many of his predecessors.
He has looked extremely weary at times and in several interviews he has made reference, sometimes light-heartedly, to an apparent belief that he only has a few years to live.
At his weekly audience on Wednesday, the pope looked cheerful but also pale and tired as he made comments touching on the theme of failing health.
Recalling how one of his predecessors, John Paul II, had remained at the head of the Church until his death in 2005 despite suffering from Parkinson's, the pope said sick people should follow his example and "bear with joy the cross of suffering as he (John Paul II) taught us."
Francis has often also complained of being exhausted by his regular overseas trips.
But there has been no sign of him slowing down: his recent nine-day trip to Cuba and the United States was one of the most gruelling yet and he is preparing for a five-day visit to Kenya, Uganda and the conflict-torn Central African Republic at the end of November.
There has also been no sign of his intellectual energy diminishing as he has participated in an ongoing synod of clerics which has seen his vision of how Church teaching on issues such as divorce and homosexuality should evolve resisted by conservatives.
The Argentinian nearly died as a young man after contracting an infection which resulted in the removal of part of his right lung.