April 4, 2005


A Portrait of the Pope as a Dying Man (Jack Miles, LA Times)

What have his fellow PD sufferers thought of his way of coping with their common condition? No poll has been taken, but a relative of mine who suffers from the disease wrote me just days ago in dismay that what was done to Terri Schiavo — by which my relative meant a prolongation of death — might be forced upon her. [...]

"And then there is the pope!" her letter added. "He is obviously in the end stage of PD with difficulties in breathing and swallowing, which is all a part of PD. He is either in denial — or he is a control freak — when he could have been a spokesperson for PD. Of all people, he could have brought this ugly disease into the public view! But I guess he believes in suffering and not in science."

The language was candid and harsh. Most of us, seeing the pope, have felt pity and perhaps questioned whether he has been fully in charge of his own person. But my relative understandably felt a grieving and angry sense of an opportunity for leadership lost. [...] [B]ecause there is no Christian whose dying is so closely watched as the pope's, there is no Christian better placed to teach again the ancient lesson that earthly life is not to be clung to. [...]

For true Christians, the culture of life that matters is the culture of eternal life. My mother recalls the death of a beloved nun, far gone with Alzheimer's disease, who refused to eat or drink during the last two or three days of her life, saying only, "I want to go home." For those gathered at her bedside, this was the testimony of the Spirit. [...]

The question that lingers about the pope's passing is whether for him, too, this could have been the testimony of the Spirit — this rather than a relentless emphasis on physical life.

When we finally get a pope who believes in Science it will mark the End.

Pontiff's Choice Was to Die Simply: His openness to the end of life calls attention to profound issues faced by the severely ill. (Sebastian Rotella and Jeffrey Fleishman, April 4, 2005, LA Times)

Pope John Paul II died the way he wanted.

He spent his final hours in his Vatican apartment, surrounded by nine members of his mainly Polish inner circle. Three doctors were present, but no elaborate hospital technology to help prolong his life.

Just before the end, the pope's longtime secretary celebrated Mass and began to anoint the pope's hands with oil, according to one account. John Paul gripped his secretary's hand, an apparent farewell gesture to a faithful aide who helped the pontiff fulfill his wish to die unencumbered by tubes and machines. It was 9:37 p.m. Saturday.

The cause of death was septic shock and irreversible heart failure, according to the death certificate made public Sunday by the Vatican. John Paul's decision last week not to return to the Gemelli Polyclinic hospital where he had spent so much time in recent years mirrored decisions made every day by severely ill patients and their families.

His very public choice also highlighted profound moral questions within Catholicism about the balance of preserving life and accepting death.

The debate has intensified with advances in medical technology. Church teachings simultaneously emphasize the sanctity of life as well as the acceptance of the final embrace of God. The pope's ordeal has raised comparisons with the recent ethical and theological battles over the Terri Schiavo case, though churchmen and theologians said Sunday that his struggle was different because he was in a position to help dictate the terms of his final medical care and she was not.

John Paul's final hours, as described by doctors, churchmen and sources close to his inner circle, did not include aggressive efforts to revive him as his organs failed. No kidney dialysis machine was used in his apartment, and the insertion of a sophisticated feeding device in his stomach would have required a return to the hospital, sources said. Instead, doctors said, they relied mainly on antibiotics and a respirator.

"There were no therapeutic extremes," said Rodolfo Proietti, a longtime anesthesiologist on the pope's medical team, quoted Sunday in the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

Proietti and the pope's personal physician, Renato Buzzonetti, supervised John Paul's care in the final days, according to a doctor who recently treated the pope and asked not to be named.

The pope, assisted closely by Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, his longtime secretary, played the central role in the decision-making, the doctor said. It was Dziwisz who held the pope's hand when he died, according to Father Konrad Hejmo, a Polish monk who later spoke to those present at the pope's bedside.

When the pontiff left the hospital March 13 after doctors performed an operation to ease his breathing, he made it clear to his aides that he did not intend to return.

Like many gravely ill people, the pope preferred to face death at home, not in the fluorescent glare of a hospital. His choice, according to a source close to papal aides, also reflected his keen awareness of church history and ritual: Popes die in the Vatican.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 4, 2005 10:26 AM
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