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."
A firm pastor. In the days to come, much will be said about the many accomplishments of John Paul II, from inspiring a "revolution of conscience" in his native Poland that helped bring down Soviet communism to opening up dialogues with other world religions, including Judaism and Islam. He will be remembered for his steadfast critique of materialism and the dehumanizing excesses of globalization. He will be both lauded and criticized for having been a firm pastor who insisted on doctrinal rigor. Some will say that he extended the true spirit of the reforms of Vatican II; others will argue that he suppressed it. What cannot be denied, even by the pope's critics, is that he was one of the dominant figures of the 20th century--both in the thick of historical events and in some way beyond them, at once a worldly and a spiritual force.
The question of who will be able to succeed such a figure will soon be on people's minds. For a decent interval at least, no one within the Vatican will speculate. First, there will be the funeral. And even to discuss the matter before the conclave is considered unseemly, particularly within the college of cardinals and especially among those 118 cardinals who are under 80 and therefore eligible to participate in the conclave to elect the next pope (all but three of whom were appointed by John Paul II). Not only are the cardinal-electors' preferences supposed to reflect the guiding influence of the Holy Spirit, but even the slightest hint of positioning or self-promotion is considered a kiss of death.
"Gold standard." Yet there is already abundant speculation among Vatican watchers, whose rosters of leading contenders have changed with increasing frequency in recent years--"almost from season to season now," says Politi. Because this has been such a long papacy, he notes, many cardinals might be tending toward the selection of a transitional figure--even such an elder statesman as Cardinal Ratzinger, who only a couple of seasons ago was on nobody's list of likely papabili, as candidates for the papacy are called. Politi is not being chauvinistic in saying that the present moment also favors Italians. A broad sampling of names includes at least two Italian cardinals, Dionigi Tettamanzi of Genoa and Angelo Scola of Venice. But also high on the current lists are two Latin American figures, Claudio Hummes of São Paulo and Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires. "I have a sense that most cardinals are not thinking about whom they will vote for," says John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter . "It is more common for them to think about what issues are facing the church and then what types of candidates are best suited to addressing those issues." In his own analysis of four rough "parties" within the college of cardinals, Allen sees various candidates arrayed according to their attitudes toward doctrine and church relations with the larger secular world.
Too often, though, matters of ecclesiastical politics obscure what might well be the most important consideration in the selection of a successor: the spiritual attributes of the candidate. "The gold standard," says the Rev. John Wauck, a professor of church communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, "is whether this guy seems like a worthy successor to St. Peter. In the face of uncertainty, you go with the guy who seems like a man of prayer, a man of faith."
Whatever else may be said about him, that is the quality that shined through John Paul II during the long trial of his physical decline. For that--in addition to his many other accomplishments--he will be, as the old saying goes, a real tough act to follow.
With John Phillips
This story appears in the April 11, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.