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Theological Notebook--Editorial on John Paul II

As some Italian news organizations are reporting that John Paul II has received the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, I toss on this editorial from the Chicago Tribune that I just saw on a door in the department, and which gave me a bit of a pause. It's some of what lots of people have been saying lately, given the Pope's decline, and some angles I hadn't seen before. Either way, it may be worth a moment. I don't know if this current fever and decline marks the end, but it is something to note: that with all his strengths and weaknesses, we've lived in the time of one of the giants of history.

The Pope's Message

Published March 6, 2005

To modern and rationalist minds, the man's perseverance makes no sense. For Americans in particular, with our Puritan-bred devotion to performance reviews and productivity, the inability to fully do our jobs would be reason enough for most of us to quit. After all, how happy could he be, sapped of pride and publicly struggling with an incurable disease?

Yet 84-year-old Pope John Paul II does not retire--does not utter what for him would be phony words about why his organization needs fresh leadership. Over two millennia, at least nine other popes have resigned. Why doesn't this one step aside? Why can't he see the solution that our contemporary wisdom, our impatience with frailty and loss, so obviously suggest?

The answer requires no faith, no denominational reverence, to understand. Each of us remains free to agree or disagree with the pope's beliefs. But with each labored breath, John Paul II is living out the central message of his reign.

Throughout the 26 years he has steered his Roman Catholic Church, and as many of its 1.1 billion members worldwide as he could coax along, to value what he calls the sanctity of life. That's a benign enough platitude, but hugely divisive in much that it implies: that war is rarely justified; that capital punishment and abortion are wrong; that euthanasia is killing disguised as convenience; that extracting stem cells from human embryos unfairly extinguishes the most powerless lives on Earth.

Few people share every one of his views. His absolutism can, though, influence how we look on the aged or infirm. That is especially true in an era when doctors routinely hear patients say they'd rather be dead than disabled. What's remarkable is John Paul's embrace of suffering--jarringly, he's even called it "precious"--as his final testament to that controversial message.

In the pope's eyes, the value of your life doesn't reside in the tidy mathematics of your pluses and minuses, your achievements and your faults. Instead, who you are has its own intrinsic value--quite apart from what you do or what hobbles you. Viewed through this prism, a person's suffering isn't an individualized plague without benefits. Rather, he would say, that hardship strips away what's unimportant. What remains is a human life, with a rich value that can't be tallied in dollars earned or trophies won.

To some unknown extent, the pope acquired that philosophy the hard way. Not until after an assassin's bullet thrust him close to death did he write one of his most quoted documents, "Salvifici Doloris," roughly, the saving power of suffering. "Human suffering evokes compassion," he wrote in that 1984 letter to his followers. "It also evokes respect, and in its own way it intimidates." In a 1999 document he amplified this idea of suffering as empowerment in words often invoked by people losing grandparents or parents: "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!"

That is the role in which John Paul has now cast himself. He has gone from mountain climber to cripple, yet evidently finds joy and confidence in a plight he didn't choose. Surely there is theology to this: Catholic teaching, after all, portrays Jesus as suffering redeemer. But John Paul hasn't preened as a latter-day metaphor. Instead he's projecting a lesson non-believers can read free of doctrine: Even at their weakest, their most vulnerable, people still have worth.

For the pope, then, deciding what to do with his dwindling life isn't difficult. He is a pastor, not a CEO. He long ago delegated day-to-day authority that keeps church bureaucracy humming. Rather than surrender to his predicament and retire, he has chosen to remain the visible symbol of his core belief.

This is neither the robust Pope John Paul who visited Chicago in 1979 nor the slower but still strong pontiff who, 20 years later, made a whirlwind trip to St. Louis.

Now it is the rest of us who glide easily about the cities where he once traveled--with some unknowable number of us bound for the difficult place where he already has arrived.

Apart from questions of faith, apart from his positions on issues that divide us, Pope John Paul II offers each of us a challenge we ought to confront: Will we, by whatever thoughts guide us and whatever lives we choose, have some compelling purpose as we approach our final days?

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