March 6, 2005


The Pope’s last lesson for us is how to die bravely and with dignity (Rónán Mullen, 3/02/05, Irish Examiner)

There are two ways to misunderstand this drama. The sentimental way - in which you pity an old man and compliment his bravery. Or the suspicious way, which accuses the Pope of being power-hungry or wilful in his struggle to hold the reins.

Both are equally far from the truth. The Pope carries on for many reasons, but I don’t think it is about showing guts or seeking power. Nor is it about his fears that a resignation could create problems for his successors by making future Popes vulnerable to outside pressures to resign, or setting up the possibility for future division between those who don’t accept the authority of a new Pope and those who do.

John Paul continues to serve because that’s what he believes he promised to Christ and the Church when he accepted election on October 26, 1978.

EVEN now, when he is unable to give his Wednesday audiences, meet foreign diplomats or travel, he is still on active service. Having spent so much of his pontificate encouraging the world to respect life, he is pursuing another agenda in his last days. It has to do with the central human problem of pain and suffering. This Pope is teaching us how to die.

Perhaps it’s a message that the world needs to hear. We want to deny ageing, sickness and death more than we ever did before. It’s not just that many of us botox our bodies out of their natural state. Sick and elderly people are made to believe they are a burden on society or their relatives and are encouraged to despise their condition. In Holland, what started out as ‘mercy killing’ soon became voluntary euthanasia. Before long, it wasn’t even the elderly person’s call any more. Now relatives and friends are the ones to determine a sick person’s ‘best interests’. Involuntary euthanasia is widespread and some old people in Holland prefer to attend doctors over the border in Germany because they are apprehensive about what might happen locally. Meanwhile, Britain’s best-known bioethicist, Baroness Warnock, who was feted by the Irish Commission for Assisted Human Reproduction at a recent conference here, has suggested that elderly people should request euthanasia rather than linger on as a burden on their families.

That is the culture which JPII is determined to counter. As a young man in Nazi-occupied Poland he immersed himself in the writings of the suffering Carmelite mystics, St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila. Today, a not-so-naïve old man clings to the image of the crucified Christ abandoning himself utterly to the will of the Father and being vindicated in that self-sacrifice by the resurrection. As his physical burdens intensify, his life becomes more unmistakably a prayer of self-sacrifice, spending himself in service to the truths on which he has staked his life.

That is the Pope from Galilee. The point of it all is to embrace the human condition fully. As a young man, a lover of sport and deep friendship, he could get ready and go where he wanted. Now, bound up in old age, he enters deep into the world of suffering where, like any human being, he would rather not go. Yet by witnessing to the dignity of human life in the midst of pain and suffering, JPII is doing what he always did: leading by example.

In a world grown suspicious of the idea of heroes, here surely is a man who stands out.

This final struggle fittingly brings his life full circle. As a young man he fought Nazism, the way for which was made ready by the same euthanistic evil that his manner of dying rebukes.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 6, 2005 2:45 PM
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