VATICAN CITY — What keeps Pope John Paul II going so intensely at age 83?
In this interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, adapted and translated from its original Italian by Zenit news service, Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls reveals details of the Pope's life and some of the Holy Father's major concerns.
A few years ago, before 2000, you said that John Paul's pontificate was one of ascent. Would you still say the same now?
With what parameter can one judge the direction — ascent, descent — of the pontificate?
I don't see anything other than his papal mission: the opening of far-reaching prospects, of goodness and of responsibility to our time. And from this point of view I would reiterate that we are in an ascent that tends to become even more rapid.
It is curious, but after 25 years of pontificate, John Paul has not exhausted the repertoire of topics. Even less so has he consumed the patrimony of pastoral initiatives.
As one of the people closest to John Paul, could you describe a normal day in the life of the Pope? Shouldn't he rest more?
His usual day includes a volume of work that is much greater than would be normal for a 20-year-old youth.
Every day there are audiences, meetings, speeches — naturally in many different languages. There are also hours of work with his collaborators or interdicastery meetings to study some issue that needs greater attention.
In addition, there are the lunches and dinners, another form of work, where new issues are studied in an informal atmosphere. And it is like this every day, including Saturdays. On Sundays, long ceremonies are frequently planned in [St. Peter's] Square, such as canonizations.
At times I have told the Pope, although he speaks English brilliantly, that he doesn't know the meaning of the word “weekend.” I think the trips, despite the effort they entail, perhaps represent a relief from these usual days, which also include hours — in the plural — of personal prayer. It is precisely from these hours the strength is drawn that gives serenity and good humor, of which the Pope is not lacking, to the rest.
Some months ago, theories of resignation circulated. The Pope has made it clear that he will continue his mission as long as God wills it. Is this determination still true?
These theories had no objective justification. I have never heard the Holy Father speak, directly or indirectly, in this sense.
The pontificate is not comparable to other ministries or functions. Moreover, although theoretically the issue can be studied in the abstract at the academic level, I do not see the reasons that would pose the problem at the practical level.
We were saying earlier that this is an ascending pontificate; for this year, five trips abroad are already planned in addition to the visit to Pompeii.
For weeks a special chair has been used to alleviate the problem of the Pope's right knee. How was it possible to convince the Holy Father to use it?
One of the most extraordinary and moving things in these years is the way that the Pope has accepted the inevitable physical limitations.
What could have been an impediment, an obstacle in the development of pastoral work has, instead, been integrated perfectly in his activity. It could almost be said that the ailments have become more of an instrument than a limitation.
In his letter to the elderly, written some years ago, the Pope said, “Despite the limitations that age has brought upon me, I still feel the zest for life.” With such a spirit, of what consequence is a chair?
Some years ago, after a prosthesis was implanted and he had difficulty moving, a bishop visiting Rome said to the Pope: “Holy Father, don't worry, the Church is not governed with a leg.” This comment made the Pope laugh.
So something similar could be said: The Church is not governed with a chair but can be governed from a chair.
We have seen with how much anguish and forcefulness the Pope tried to avert the war in Iraq. Judging from his words, it seems that from the Great Jubilee until today, his concern for the future has been accentuated. Are there grounds for this perception? What feeds the Pope's anxiety?
Concern about the future and the present. Throughout the world, also beyond the Catholic realm, the Pope is seen as the highest moral authority.
This can be seen every time an important ethical issue faces present-day humanity. In the case of the war — of the wars, because there is more than one — there are those who say that as the war was not averted, one must speak of defeat. But this is not so.
The validity of ethical judgments must not be measured in utilitarian terms. Ethical judgments are necessary, very much so, to sensitize the moral conscience. They contribute to the truth of things.
The Pope often returns to the great issues of violence because these feed his anxiety: violence to human dignity, violence to unborn life, violence to the fundamental right of freedom of conscience, violence in no matter what form it manifests itself — which is not always in situations of war.
You have been by John Paul's side for years. Could you tell us about an incident that seems particularly significant?
Last year, after the extenuating trip to Canada, Guatemala and Mexico, and after that to Poland, the Pope had some days of relaxation at Castel Gandolfo. He then reopened a “closed chapter” — as he had called it — of his life: poetry. And he began to write in this literary form.
Undoubtedly, he used images, impressions and especially reflections that he had accumulated earlier. And the book Roman Triptych was the result, which is being published in different languages.
For me, this return of the Pope to poetry is significant. It moves me, because he uses new expressive resources not for purposes of literary experimentation but to manifest in another way the same message of which he is brimming.
A Pope, an elderly man, with some ailments, with very little time for himself, who takes pen and paper in hand and writes poems! Bold, rich poetry that speaks of human love as if he were a minstrel and of the love of God as a mystic. I repeat: This moves me. I think it is something extraordinary.