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 public stage.
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 92).
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 look away.
Legionary Father Thomas D. Williams is Dean of the Theology
School at Rome’s Regina
Apostolorum Pontifical University.