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Want to know what John Paul thinks? Watch him.
BY John LillyFATHER THOMAS D. WILLIAMS, L.C.
Pope John Paul II
never ceases to rock our world.
As he burst out of
the Gemelli hospital last week and rode triumphantly
through the streets of Rome back to the Vatican, he resembled the Roman
generals of old marching back from war, blood-stained and battle-scarred, but
victorious once again.
The throngs of journalists and paparazzi
that had been waiting for hours to steal a glimpse of the Pope as he was
whisked back to the Vatican nearly keeled over in surprise as John Paul
appeared not in an armored limousine with tinted glass to conceal his
condition, but on full display in the familiar transparent popemobile.
Far from hiding his age and ailments, the
Holy Father practically flaunts them. He wears them as a badge of honor. Just
when we would expect him to modestly retire from view, he steps out on the
Yet despite speculation to the contrary, Pope John Paul’s
attitude toward his suffering and even the reality of death cannot be
attributed to inveterate stubbornness and much less to stoic resignation. His
behavior is suffused with Christian hope that embraces life as a gift but is
equally ready to step into eternity when God sees fit to call him home.
The Holy Father has been called the Great Communicator. Now
that his voice begins to fail him, he speaks more and more through symbols.
His Thursday afternoon ride through Rome sent a
multi-layered message to the world, a message of comfort and of hope: The Pope
is still with you! Do not be afraid!
Elderly and infirm people, you whom the world considers
useless, remember your dignity! Suffering and death do not have the final word
in the Christian journey! Life is always worth living!
Pope John Paul II struggles on because he believes that he
still has a mission to fulfill. He is convinced that this moment in his papacy
is every bit as important as the first years when he was traveling the world,
helping to topple communism and reaching out to millions with his teaching and
preaching. In his 1999 Letter to the
Elderly John Paul wrote that “at every stage of life the Lord can ask each
of us to contribute what talents we have. The service of the Gospel has nothing
to do with age!” (No. 7).
Moreover he adds: “The Spirit acts as and where he wills,
and quite frequently he employs human means which seem of little account in the
eyes of the world. How many people find understanding and comfort from elderly
people who may be lonely or ill and yet are able to instill courage by their
loving advice, their silent prayers, or their witness of suffering borne with
patient acceptance! At the very time when their physical energies and their
level of activity are decreasing, these brothers and sisters of ours become all
the more precious in the mysterious plan of Providence” (No. 13).
The Holy Father’s reflections help us understand both the
importance of this moment of his papacy and our own aging and ailments. He
manifests the truth of the Psalmist’s words: “The just will flourish like the
palm-tree, and grow like a Lebanon cedar, ... still bearing fruit when they are
old, still full of sap, still green, to proclaim that the Lord is just” (Psalm
And yet, along with the solace this undoubtedly brings, the
Holy Father’s message makes us uncomfortable as well. Human suffering makes us
feel uneasy, ashamed, naked and vulnerable before the world. We instinctively
wish to cover it up. Glossy magazines shine with images of the young and the
beautiful, sleek bodies sporting fashionable clothes. Old age and suffering are
anything but fashionable.
Twenty one years ago last week, on Feb. 11, 1984, Pope John
Paul brought this reality home in his encyclical letter on human suffering, Salvifici Doloris. He
wrote that human suffering provokes three reactions in those who witness it:
compassion, respect, and fear (No.
4). And who of us does not experience all three of these emotions when we look
upon the Holy Father?
We feel intense compassion for him as he struggles through
his discourses and falters in his endeavor to express himself. We profoundly
admire his courage, his valor, his heroism, as he pushes inexorably forward,
refusing to grant himself a respite in his mission as pastor. But we also feel
intimidated and frightened at this icon of the human condition in all its
frailty. In the Pope’s suffering, we come face to face with our own weakness.
This is perhaps the greatest gift of an aging Pope. His
condition obliges us to recall a central reality of our Christian faith,
expressed in the words Christ spoke to Saint Paul: “My grace is sufficient for
you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” This awareness led Paul to
profess: “I am content with weaknesses ... for whenever I am weak, then I am
strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
For Christians, Jesus Christ is represented most often not
in moments of glory — walking on the waters or multiplying loaves and fishes —
but on the cross. Pope John Paul did immense good for the Church and the world
in the vigor of his youth; in God’s providential plan he continues to do good,
in a more mysterious way, through his union with Christ crucified. Let us not
Legionary Father Thomas D. Williams is Dean of the
School at Rome’s Regina
Apostolorum Pontifical University.