I can’t shake the memories of seeing him at his apartment window, unable to speak. He had addressed his beloved flock so many thousands of times from that very window. One of the largest crowds ever had gathered outside, praying for him. But he was unable to utter even a few words of welcome.
All he could do was raise an unsteady hand and impart his papal blessing.
He had been deteriorating physically for some time. Diagnosed with Parkinsons in 2001, he eventually couldn’t speak more than a few words at a time or stand for long. His speech became slurred, eventually he could not lift his head very high, and he began to drool. His remarks had to be read for him as he sat in a chair nearby at liturgies and stations of the cross during that final Lenten season.
Talk of retirement had begun, and had gotten louder. But he did not quit, walk away, give up, or give in.
Throughout his pontificate he had been the vibrant, rejuvenating force opposing the promoters of inhuman, atheistic ideologies. He came to the papacy when communism appeared to be on the march and the freedom-loving West would be overrun. He was the one who went to Soviet-controlled Poland, stood tall and serene in the confidence of God’s Truth and had the military dictator shaking in his boots. He had been the one to stand firm and exhort us all, “Do not be afraid,” over and over and over again. And we took him at his word, because he showed no fear.
He embraced the world, becoming the most viewed person in history, attracting millions upon millions of pilgrims—-people who loved him not because he played sports well (though he was an athlete); not because he was a famous movie star (though he had been an actor); but because of his fearless message of love and hope and the inevitable, though counterintuitive, triumph of the cross of Christ.
And now, at this late hour, he was embracing that cross more profoundly than he had perhaps ever done. He had taught us about the love of Christ and the contradiction of the cross with his words, but now he was teaching it with his actions.
“Do not be afraid” no longer just referred to living the Gospel without fear of political oppression, loss of fortune, status, or friends. It meant, “do not be afraid” of your own physical faltering, sickness, suffering, and death. After all, we follow a crucified savior: “he was despised and rejected, a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief.” And “is the servant greater than the master?” No. Suffering is as human as free will, and it is the means by which we grow closer to our crucified Lord. If we do not suffer with him, and so “make up in our bodies what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ,” we shall have no part with him. If we are to be his followers we must follow where he goes, take up our cross, and go after him to whatever Calvary is ours, so that we might realize the glory of what followed the suffering of the cross: the resurrection.
Christ did not come into the world to remove suffering, but to show us how to live with it. As Archabbot Lambert Reilly puts it, “Christ didn’t come to make life easy; Christ came to make us great!” He came to share our human weakness, which mean suffering, and to triumph through the sorrows. His good and faithful servants cannot but do likewise.
It is an important message especially today. Technology allows us to anesthetize our pain, and have surgery to reverse aging. Nursing homes enable us to warehouse our elders so we can move on with life without their annoyances. And our ethics have been sliding toward euthanasia.
Then there was the man in white, formerly full of life and vigor, slower at first, then stooped, his speech going, eventually confined to a wheelchair, then his bed, then unable to talk at all, but still blessing us with his ministry of love untiring. In the footsteps of his suffering Lord, he showed us how to love through suffering and how to suffer with dignity. He showed us that a person’s worth derives from who he is in the eyes of God and not from what he is able to do or what he owns. He showed us that no matter our place in life, suffering will find us: the question is how we will choose to suffer, not whether we will. He taught that the worst thing we can do is reject the life we have left because it’s hard, turn into a tiny ball of self-pity, and allow the suffering to take over and lead to despair.
Rejection of suffering can lead to a rejection of life, therefore a rejection of every other living person. That’s nihilism, the ultimate philosophy of the dark one.
I recall the day he died. I was taking part in a eucharistic procession through the streets of Manhattan. The procession, intended to be about praying for vocations, had been planned for months. Naturally, the mood and significance altered immediately.
I could not believe how many people would stop and ask us how the pope was doing. People whom, to look at them, you would not expect to know anything about the pope at all, or to have a heavy disdain. Cars with thumping music would slow down, the driver would turn down the music and offer words of condolence. Women in outfits that suggested the oldest of professions would ask, with the most sincere and sincerely affected look on their faces, if he was still alive. They perhaps hadn’t darkened the door of a church in years (or maybe they did, in secret) but behind the masks they painted on, these human souls were affected by this man. He was teaching, with every labored breath, “You can expect moral and spiritual greatness of yourself!” That greatness only accrues to they who embrace their cross and do not seek the easy way out. His tenacious adherence to life and his life’s mission, for love of life and for his fellow man, touched something preternatural in these people in a way that they would not have been touched had he opted for retirement or the easy escape of euthanasia.
When the news came that John Paul II had finally passed, we had just finished benediction at, fittingly, Holy Cross Church on W 42nd Street. Father Benedict Groeschel had led the meditation. The pastor came out and announced the pope’s passing, then immediately set up for a requiem Mass.
It was a rather striking Mass. The long-suffering pope who had long embraced his cross was being remembered at the altar at a church dedicated in honor of the holy cross of Christ.
I cried, practically bawled, for a while. They were tears of sorrow for the loss of such a great man who had been pope since I was four months old. But at the same time, they were tears of great joy and gratitude for this holy servant of God, and for all of us for the great gift he had been. The skies must have shared my sentiment because they opened up and released a downpour of epic proportions. All of nature was weeping his passing.
His life and the way he died is the sign of contradiction to a world that seeks to eliminate pain, forget aging, put away the infirm: to them he says, “Do not be afraid!” Embrace your cross, share the suffering of the Lord and the world for which the Lord died. Unite your suffering to that of the crucified savior, after the example of the great John Paul II.
Blessed John Paul II, pray for us as we struggle to embrace our several crosses.