He’s Suffering For Us

Why won’t the Pope give up?

His illness must be painful and uncomfortable — after all, it is painful and uncomfortable to watch him. But he insisted from Gemelli Hospital last Sunday that, “Even in this hospital, in the midst of other sick people … I can continue to serve the Church and the entire humanity.”

The fact is, Pope John Paul II has become the living embodiment of the message he has been preaching throughout his pontificate.

He’s Pope in a world that has created a cult of celebrity, one that worships beauty and youth. Indeed, the argument used to be made that it was his energy, appearance and history as an actor that attracted the attention of Catholics to the Holy Father.

It’s now clear that there’s something much more profound about the Pope. He is shrunken and hunched over by age. Each step he takes is painful. He speaks slowly, and without the vocal expressiveness he once had. It’s not the man himself, but the holiness behind his words that we pay attention to now. And isn’t that what we were really interested in all along?

He’s Pope in a world awash with the philosophies of self-affirmation, self-assertion and independence. It’s a world whose leaders balk at allowing themselves to be photographed in physically compromised situations, looking weak, vulnerable and dependent on others. Yet the Pope comes before crowds week after week, barely able to move, needing help sometimes even to finish his remarks.

And still the crowds come — because this man’s message is the message of Christ, the man of sorrows who came to deliver us from sorrow.

Sometimes watching John Paul is like watching The Passion of the Christ. As with the movie, there’s no enjoyment at all in seeing the intensity of the physical discomfort. We might even want to turn our heads. But precisely because the suffering makes us so uncomfortable, it’s awe-inspiring to see him rise to his feet, over and over again, and go on.

Why does he do it? He asked the same question more than a decade ago, in 1994, when he was hospitalized for hip surgery. 

“Why now?” he said. “Why in this Year of the Family?”

At the time, the Vatican’s project of promoting family friendly policies seemed on the verge of collapse. The United States had teamed up with the most powerful nations of the world to promote policies at the United Nations that would push international policies of abortion, sterilization and contraception.

The United Nations was meeting in Cairo to put the final touches on these big plans. John Paul showed all the restless spirit of an active man stuck in a hospital bed by physical infirmity. He could easily have felt that it was a particularly cruel blow that fate had incapacitated him at precisely that time.

But the Holy Father had a different answer.

Why did the Pope suffer? “Precisely because the family is under attack,” he said. “The Pope has to be attacked, the Pope has to suffer, so that every family and the world may see that there is … a higher Gospel: The Gospel of suffering, by which the future is prepared, the third millennium of families, and every family and of all families.”

John Paul didn’t see himself as a player in international politics who had to sit out an important round: He saw himself as the vicar of Christ crucified, facing a key test.

“I meditated on all this and thought it over again during my hospital stay,” he told pilgrims in Rome later that year. “I understood that I have to lead Christ’s Church into this third millennium by prayer, by various programs, but I saw that this is not enough: She must be led by suffering, by the (assassination attempt) and by this new sacrifice.”

This supreme sacrifice on the part of the Pope does, and should, inspire awe in us. But not just the awe an audience has, but the awe a follower has.

For many of us, the Holy Father is a key part of the reason we are Catholic at all.

We committed ourselves to the Church under his watch. He signed the Catechism that has given our faith such clarity. His teachings have stood as signs of contradiction in the world. He has himself been the central attraction at events like the World Youth Days and the Jubilee festivals that sparked so many initiatives throughout the Church. We learned how to be Catholics from his manner and his words.

Now, we have to help him by saying the things he can’t, doing the things he asked and promoting his vision of the Church in places he can never go.

Last Sunday, when Pope John Paul II spoke from his hospital bed, he said, “One must have confidence in life!”

Thanks to him, we can.