A Painful Passing
The Vatican described the pontiff's final hours as serene. It was his pastoral flock who felt and expressed the full measure of his loss
Rome--Thousands of the faithful--pilgrims, tourists, and ordinary Romans--thronged St. Peter's Square in the final days of his remarkable 26-year papacy. With each passing hour, a growing sense of finality settled over the crowd and the broader public around the world who remembered a once vigorous John Paul II surviving an assassin's bullet to stare down communism and champion the faith to the far corners of the globe.
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, a former physician, broke down as he informed the press that the pope's condition was "very grave," with succeeding bulletins describing a slow, inexorable downward slide. Receiving visits from several members of the hierarchy, including the Holy See's secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, and his chief adviser on doctrinal matters, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope was reported to have appointed 12 new bishops and accepted the resignations of six others from his sickbed. But a urinary tract infection, followed by a brief heart stoppage, septic shock, and apparent multiple-organ failure, left the 84-year-old pontiff fighting impossible odds. "I hope that the Lord will either welcome him quickly or keep him here for us, which is maybe a selfish thought," said Travers Clark, an American art history student who joined the vigil in St. Peter's Square.
The final chapter of John Paul II's papacy, the third longest in history, will be remembered for many things, but one, surely, will be his style of teaching. "He's taught us how to live, he's taught us how to suffer," Jim Mulligan, a Missouri deacon studying in Rome, told Newsday , "and now he's teaching us how to die." Rather than the spoken word, his extensive travel, or bold theological treatises--the means by which the Polish-born prelate inspired the faithful and influenced the course of world events during his long papacy--Karol Wojtyla came, finally, to instruct through the example of his struggle with the advancing debilitation caused by Parkinson's disease. His frustration at his inability to speak was evident throughout his last Holy Week, but so, too, was the character of his new ministry. In handwritten remarks that he was unable to deliver on Good Friday, the pontiff drew on the words of St. Paul: "I offer up in my own flesh the sufferings that are lacking to the passion of Christ for the sake of the church, for the sake of the world." Later, on Easter Sunday, it was clear from the reactions of the tens of thousands who packed St. Peter's Square that his 12-minute appearance at his study window, during which he struggled unsuccessfully to speak, was both saddening and inspirational. What people were witnessing, says Marco Politi, longtime Vatican observer for Rome's Repubblica newspaper, was "a papacy marked by suffering. He wanted to show that the pope is not an idol but a human being that can be deprived of all." As one of John Paul II's biographers, theologian George Weigel, recently wrote, the pontiff's struggle during the last month was his way of "bearing witness to the truth that suffering embraced in obedience and love can be redemptive."