Weakened Pope Gives Even Greater Testimony To Hope

VATICAN CITY— While much of the world’s media speculates about Pope John Paul II’s ability to rule the Church, the Pope’s own reaction to his hospitalization points to a deeper significance to dramatic events of the past couple of weeks.

Soon after being admitted to Rome’s Agostino Gemelli Hospital the evening of Feb. 1, the Pope made clear that he was determined to be present at the Feb. 6 Sunday Angelus and give his apostolic blessing. The morning after his hospitalization, his long-time personal aide, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, said the Holy Father was not “too preoccupied” by his condition and that he had told him to “pray and be at peace.”

That response is entirely consistent with John Paul’s profound reliance on Providence. According to Father Thomas Williams, dean of moral theology at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, the Pope believes that “if he has lived so long and in these health conditions, God has some plan in all this.”

His overriding mission is to continue bearing witness to hope, in particular through conveying the supernatural and redemptive nature of suffering, a calling that he has consistently answered from an early age.

Mystery of Suffering

“The experience of the mystery of human suffering is the point of departure for Pope John Paul’s thought,” said author and friend of the Holy Father, Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete. “For him, the capacity for suffering is a defining human experience.”

This can be seen not only in the Holy Father’s personal suffering, but in his executive deeds as Pope. In 1984 he wrote the apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (Salvific Suffering), the first such Church document to address the spiritual nature of suffering. In the letter, he taught that rather than viewing suffering as a punishment or divine retribution, it should be seen as an opportunity for “rebuilding goodness in the subject who suffers.”

Suffering exists, John Paul wrote, “to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of one’s ‘I’ on behalf of other people, especially those who suffer.”

In 1985, the Holy Father founded the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care, followed in 1992 by his institution of the annual World Day of the Sick.

But it is through his own personal testimony to suffering that he has had the greatest impact, many believe. For Father Williams, there are two main reasons why he chooses to bear such outward suffering: to encourage others who suffer, and to give voice to the Christian belief that our strength comes from God’s grace, not from our physical attributes.

In so doing, John Paul’s witness as a “suffering servant” intentionally acts as a strong countercultural force. “We live in a world in which we are taught to seek bodily health and beauty, a world in which the emphasis is on ‘do, do, do,’” said Bishop Jose Luis Redrado, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care. “It is difficult in such a world to receive the weak and the sick.”

And the Pope not only strives through his own testimony to console the sick and the elderly by helping them see the value of their own life, but “has consistently trumpeted the Christian belief that all persons bear an inherent dignity that does not depend on their abilities or talents, but on the mere fact of their personhood,” Father Williams said.

Another aspect of his suffering is the solidarity it offers to both the sick and the elderly. According to Father Williams, he is “literally sharing in their condition and offering testimony of how one can live these difficulties with joy and virtue.”

Lenten Message

John Paul has given a timely perspective on the dignity of the elderly and the sick in his Lenten message this year. Primarily dedicated to the gift of longevity, the Pope’s message speaks forcefully against euthanasia and neglect and disregard of the elderly and the sick, and instead highlights their important contribution.

“Human life is a precious gift to be loved and defended in each of its stages,” he writes. “If growing old, with its inevitable conditions, is accepted serenely in the light of faith, it can become an invaluable opportunity for better comprehending the Mystery of the Cross, which gives full sense to human existence.”

The Pope continues by emphasizing that “knowledge of the nearness of the final goal leads the elderly person to focus on that which is essential.” The elderly person, he goes on, can carry out his or her role in society precisely because of this condition, offering wisdom and experience to future generations and showing “the way of progress toward an ever more complete form of civilization.”

While in the hospital, the Holy Father received an “enormous” number of messages of support from the sick and the aged, the Vatican reported. Many elderly people and pilgrims of all ages also came to visit him personally. “He shows that through suffering, even if you are weak and ill, you can still be a messenger of love and truth,” said Jack Romaniuk, who had come to Gemelli Hospital from Warsaw.

For many, the central issue, therefore, is not whether the Holy Father can govern the Church as a hands-on chief executive, but rather how much deeper and more powerful his Christian witness is becoming. “The Pope is not to be judged according to the criteria of managerial effectiveness, but the criteria of fatherhood and witness,” said Father Robert Gahl, professor of philosophy at Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. “The Pope presides over the college of bishops, but the Church moves forward, governed by local pastors and guided by the Holy Spirit.”

Father Gahl added the Holy Father is giving an example of “courageous leadership and paternity” at a period that, according to Msgr. Albacete, the Pope sees as “the most important” of his life, “a time when the gospel of suffering is publicly proclaimed by his own body.”

As John Paul confirmed during his Angelus address Feb. 6: “In this hospital, in the middle of other sick people to whom my affectionate thoughts go out, I can continue to serve the Church and the whole of humanity.”

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.