The Suffering and Death of a Shepherd:
What Pope John Paul Taught Us at the End
Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B.
April 7, 2011
Knights of Columbus Museum
New Haven, Connecticut

On a warm weekend in August 2004 as I worked in our new Toronto studios of Salt and Light Catholic Television Network in Canada, (a project inspired by John Paul II), two screens in our master control room were carrying very contrasting, human dramas played out on two world stages. One television network was airing scenes of the Olympic Games from Athens - featuring and exalting the human body in its youthfulness, agility, and beauty. Another monitor carried scenes of quite a different theater unfolding at a famous Catholic shrine tucked away in the Pyrenees in southern France - featuring not sportsmanship and physique as in Athens, but diminishment, suffering, disfigurement and pain that are so much a part of the pilgrimage centre at Lourdes. And the key actor in this moment of pathos was an 84-year-old Pontiff, slumped over on his kneeler as he prayed before the image of the Blessed Mother who appeared in Lourdes more than 150 years earlier.

The contrasting theatrical dramas on that August weekend were unique teaching moments offering the world some profound truths about living and dying; youthfulness and old age; the cost of commitment and total self-giving. Athens and its glorious medalists come and go with the passage of time. Lourdes and its exceptional pilgrim will remain engraved on the memories and hearts of pilgrims and viewers throughout the world who, seeing those images, realized that John Paul II was beginning the final dramatic act of a brilliant 27-year Pontificate. He was an actor who knew the power of gesture and symbol, and allowed himself to be a kind of spectacle to the world.

As an affectionate father and a careful teacher, Pope John Paul II indicated sure and sound points of reference indispensable for everyone, especially for the young. The contrast between John Paul II’s physical vigor at the start of his pontificate and his state at journey’s end was striking. Now that the struggle is over, the curtain fallen, the race won, the heavenly victory his and on the eve of his Beatification in Rome on May 1, 2011, we need to take stock of the lessons he taught us, especially in the final years of his life.

Remembering the beginning

I was a nineteen-year-old university student on October 16, 1978, when the Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church elected Karol Wojtyla as the 264th Successor to the Apostle Peter. They called to Rome a man from a distant country, a youthful athlete who took the world and the Church by storm. At the time of his election, André Frossard, a well-known French journalist wrote: “This isn’t a pope from Poland; this is a pope from Galilee.” The press nicknamed him “God’s athlete,” and later “God’s astronaut” because he traveled a distance equivalent to more than three times that between the earth and the moon on over 100 international trips or pastoral visits as he called them. He fulfilled remarkably his role of “Successor of Peter” during the past twenty-seven years. But even more than that, he was the “Successor of Paul,” talking the Church off the banks of the Tiber River in Rome and bringing it to the farthest corners of the earth.

On Human Suffering

One of the beautiful and not frequently cited writings of John Paul II was his 1984 apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris, “On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering.” The late Pope, following the Apostle Paul and the entire Catholic Tradition, maintained throughout his life that it is precisely in suffering that Christ displayed his solidarity with humanity, and in which we can grow in solidarity with Christ, who is our life.

In Salvifici Doloris suffering is the consequence of sin, and Christ embraces that consequence, rather than repudiating it. By embracing suffering, he shares fully in it, he takes the consequence of sin into and onto himself. He does this out of love for us, not simply because he wants to redeem us, but because he wants to be with us, to share what we share, to experience what we experience. And it is this shared love, this shared suffering in love, which completes and perfects the relationship broken in sin, and so redeems us.

Pope John Paul II taught us that the meaning of suffering is fundamentally changed by the Incarnation. Apart from the Incarnation, suffering is the consequence of sin. It offers opportunities for insight into oneself, for personal growth, and for demonstrating practical love for others, but these are incidental. Because of the Incarnation, however, we become sharers in the Body of Christ. Our suffering becomes his suffering, and becomes an expression of redeeming love.

Because he was the leader of a billion Roman Catholics; because he was the first pontiff of the satellite and Internet age, reaching out to billions more, and because he was John Paul II, who has ruled the church for more than 26 years—in that public experience of suffering was found enormous power. And that he certainly knew. In 1981, after recovering from the gunshot wound that almost took his life in St. Peter’s Square, John Paul declared that suffering, as such, is one of the most powerful messages in Christianity.

During the final years of his pontificate, John Paul II brought suffering back into the realm of the expected in human life. Everyone could see that his spirituality gave him an inner strength - a spirituality with which one can also overcome fear, even the fear of death. What an incredible lesson for the world! His struggle with the physical effects of aging was also a valuable lesson to a society that finds it hard to accept growing older, and a culture that sees no redemption in suffering.

In 1994, as age and infirmity began to incapacitate John Paul publicly, he told his followers he had heard God and was about to change the way he led the church. “I must lead her with suffering,” he said. “The pope must suffer so that every family and the world should see that there is, I would say, a higher gospel: the gospel of suffering, with which one must prepare the future.”

Nothing made John Paul waver, even the debilitating sickness hidden under the glazed Parkinsonian mask, and ultimately his inability to speak and move. In a youth-obsessed culture in which people are constantly urged to fight or deny the ravages of time, age, disease, he reminded us that aging and suffering are a natural part of being human. Where the old and infirm are so easily put in nursing homes and often forgotten, the Pope was a timely and powerful reminder that our parents and grandparents, the sick, the handicapped and the dying have great value. Many young people have confided in me over the past few years that they were “deprived” of their grandparents in their families and witnessed in the public diminishment and suffering of John Paul II the real meaning of aging and suffering. I have heard over and over again from young people these past years: “I feel as if he were my grandfather.”

A letter to his peers

In 1999, in preparation for the Great Jubilee, Pope John Paul II published his “Letter to the Elderly.” Following his Letters to the young in 1985, to families in 1994, to children in 1994, to women in 1995 and to artists in 1999 year - and not counting those Letters that he wrote each year to priests on Holy Thursday, since the beginning of his pontificate, he wrote deeply moving and encouraging words to his peers in the Letter to the Elderly. He had no fear in placing before the eyes of the world the limits and frailties that the years placed upon him. He did nothing to disguise them. In speaking to young people, he has no difficulty in saying of himself: ‘I am an old priest’.” John Paul II “continued to fulfill his mission as the Successor of Peter, looking far ahead with the enthusiasm of the only youth that does not deteriorate, that of the spirit, which this Pope maintains intact. The letter had a very personal, almost confidential, tone and was not an analysis of old age. Rather, it was a very intimate dialogue between people of the same generation.

“The passage of time,” wrote the Pope in that memorable letter, “helps us to see our experiences in a clearer light and softens their painful side.” Moreover, he says, the daily difficulties can be eased with God’s help. In addition, “we are consoled by the thought that, by virtue of our spiritual souls, we will survive beyond death.”

“Guardians of shared memory” was the title of the one part of the Pope’s Letter. Pointing out that “in the past, great respect was shown to the elderly,” the Pope remarks that this is still true in many cultures today, “while among others, this is much less the case, due to a mentality which gives priority to immediate human usefulness and productivity.” He wrote: “It has come to the point where euthanasia is increasingly put forward as a solution for difficult situations. Unfortunately, in recent years the idea of euthanasia has lost for many people the sense of horror which it naturally awakens in those who have a sense of respect for life.”

The Pope added: “Here it should be kept in mind that the moral law allows the rejection of ‘aggressive medical treatment’ and makes obligatory only those forms of treatment which fall within the normal requirements of medical care, which in the case of terminal illness seeks primarily to alleviate pain. But euthanasia, understood as directly causing death, is another thing entirely. Regardless of intentions and circumstances, euthanasia is always an intrinsically evil act, a violation of God’s law and an offense against the dignity of the human person.”

Pope John Paul II continued in that letter: “Man has been made for life, whereas death ... was not a part of God’s original plan but came about as a consequence of sin.” “However rationally comprehensible death may be from a biological standpoint, it is not possible to experience it as something ‘natural’.” We ask ourselves, he says here, “What is on the other side of the shadowy wall of death?” The answer comes from faith “which illuminates the mystery of death and brings serenity to old age, now no longer lived passively as the expectation of a calamity, but rather as a promise-filled approach to the goal of full maturity.”

Pope John Paul’s Letter to the Elderly closed with a section entitled “An encouragement to live life to the full.” He writes: “I feel a spontaneous desire to share fully with you my own feelings at this point of my life, after more than twenty years of ministry on the throne of Peter. ... Despite the limitations brought on by age I continue to enjoy life. For this I thank the Lord. It is wonderful to be able to give oneself to the very end for the sake of the Kingdom of God! “At the same time,” he concludes, “I find great peace in thinking about the time when the Lord will call me: from life to life! ... ‘Bid me to come to you’: this is the deepest yearning of the human heart, even in those who are not conscious of it.” What a magnificent signature piece of Pope John Paul II! He not only wrote the letter but enacted it in his own life. We were eye witnesses.

The Swiss visit

Nowhere was John Paul’s faith in young people and personal tenacity evidenced more than on June 6, 2004, less than one year before his death, during his visit to Bern, Switzerland. He needed young people more than ever on that visit. Before the pope arrived in Switzerland, some 40 priests and lay leaders signed an open letter suggesting that the pope resign because of age and weak health. There was quite another mood in a Bern ice arena.

The pontiff struggled in vain to get the first sentence of his speech out of his mouth. After three attempts to get the words out of his mouth, the 13,000 young people applauded in encouragement. At the same time, a member of the Papal entourage approached him as if to take the microphone and let someone else read the speech. The pope slapped the aide’s hand and grabbed the mike back himself -- and the crowd erupted in delight. John Paul the actor played with the crowd, egging them on. Then he read his speech without stopping. At that event in Bern, the pope managed not only to talk but to communicate, something that many able and younger church leaders are unable to do! The crowd reacted to the content of the speech, giving the pope one of his biggest cheers when he recalled that he, too, was their age a long time ago. They applauded wildly with understanding when he told them Christianity was not an ideology, a book or a system, but above all the person of Christ.

The Swiss youth, and the millions watching the event on television caught the poignancy when the pope, speaking of his own life, said it was a beautiful thing to be able to “give oneself to the very end for the cause of the kingdom of God.” And they went wild when the pope, at the end of his speech, pronounced in a voice that was firm and clear as a bell: “Christ is speaking to you. Listen to him.” Then the crowd was treated to another glimpse of papal chutzpah, watching as the pope reprimanded his bishop secretary and, gesticulating with his fist, told him to bring the microphone back. He wanted to say goodbye in German, French and Italian, three of the four languages of Switzerland. What energy he gave to “his dear young friends” that day. What energy and encouragement they gave to him! The relationship was mutual.

The public suffering

Pope John Paul II taught us that life is sacred, no matter how painful his own life became for him. We can only imagine the Pope’s frustration and sadness on Palm Sunday, 2005 when he was unable to descend to St. Peter’s Square to preside at the magnificent Palm Sunday liturgy (the 20th anniversary of World Youth Days) - with most of the 50,000+ people present being young people. Instead, he sent the crowd a message: “I become more and more aware how providential and prophetic it is that this day, Palm Sunday and the Passion of the Lord, has become your day. This feast contains a special grace, that of joy united to the Cross which epitomizes the Christian mystery.”

Rather than hide his infirmities, as most public figures do, Pope John Paul II let the whole world see what he went through. The suffering and dying of this Pope did not take place in private, but before television cameras and the whole world. In the final act of his life, the athlete was immobilized, the distinctive, booming voice silenced, and the hand that produced voluminous encyclicals no longer able to write. John Paul II’s final homily was an icon of his Galilean Master’s final words to Simon Peter: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” …After this he [Jesus] said to him, “Follow me” [John 21:18-19].

Suffering can be redemptive. The very worst pain and diminishment can set free the very best in people. Against the backdrop of a Culture of Death, where life is so cheap and sanctioned euthanasia is on our doorsteps, John Paul II’s suffering and dying gave new meaning and urgency to the Gospel of Life in all of its agonizing beauty.

Many Catholics and non-Christians saw the pope’s suffering as something like the agony of Jesus himself, and neither John Paul nor those around him discourage such comparisons. When asked a few years ago if he might consider resigning, John Paul reportedly asked, in reply, “Did Christ come down from the cross?” His close aides say that debate about his ability to administer the church, as if he were the CEO of a secular corporation, essentially misses the point. This pope is not doing a job, he is carrying out a divine mission, and his pain is at its core.

The final Good Friday evening

One of my most vivid memories from the last week of our late Holy Father Pope John Paul II’s life was during the Way of the Cross on Good Friday evening in 2005, in which he participated by watching the service at the Coliseum in his chapel on television. We were televising that moment from our broadcast centre in Toronto. The television camera in his chapel was behind him so that he would not be distracted from taking part in this ceremony in which he always took part personally. Then-Archbishop John Foley was doing the television commentary in English from Rome, reading the very provocative meditations prepared by a certain Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.

At one point toward the end of the Way of the Cross, someone put a rather large crucifix on the knee of the Holy Father, and he was gazing lovingly at the figure of Jesus. At the words, “Jesus Dies on the Cross,” Pope John Paul drew the crucifix to himself and embraced it. I will never forget that scene. Those of us working in the master control room in Toronto had tears streaming down our faces. What an incredibly powerful homily without words! Like Jesus, Pope John Paul II embraced the cross; in fact, he embraced the crucifix of Jesus Christ on Good Friday night.

The death of a patriarch

In his final hours during the octave of Easter, a new generation wished to show they had understood his teaching and gathered silently in prayer in St. Peter’s Square and many other places around the world. Tens of thousands of young people were aware that his demise was a loss: ‘their’ Pope was dying, whom they considered as ‘their father’ in the faith.” Though broken and bent at the end of his earthly pilgrimage, John Paul II crossed the threshold of history, standing tall, as a giant.

Several hours before his death, Pope John Paul’s last audible words were: “Let me go to the house of the Father.” In the intimate setting of prayer, as Mass was celebrated at the foot of his bed and the throngs of faithful sang below in St. Peter’s Square, he died at 9:37 p.m. on April 2. Through his public passion, suffering and death, this holy priest, Successor of the Apostles, and Servant of God, showed us the suffering face of Jesus in a remarkable way.

The Pope of Holiness

Karol Wojtyla himself was an extraordinary witness who, through his devotion, heroic efforts, long suffering and death, communicated the powerful message of the Gospel to the men and women of our day. A great part of the success of his message is due to the fact that he has been surrounded by a tremendous cloud of witnesses who stood by him and strengthened him throughout his life. For John Paul II, the call to holiness excludes no one; it is not the privilege of a spiritual elite.

“Lumen Gentium,” the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council notes that the holiness of Christians flows from that of the Church and manifests it. It says that holiness “is expressed in many ways by the individuals who, each in his own state of life, tend to the perfection of love, thus sanctifying others” (LG 39). In this variety “one and the same holiness is cultivated by all, who are moved by the Spirit of God...and follow the poor Christ, the humble and crossbearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in his glory” (LG 41).

When the throngs of people began chanting “Santo Subito” at the end of the Pope’s funeral mass on April 8, 2005, what were they really chanting? They were crying out that in Karol Wojtyla, they saw someone who lived with God and lived with us. He was a sinner who experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness. He was the prophetic teacher who preached the word in season and out of season. He looked at us, loved us, touched us, healed us and gave us hope. He taught us not to be afraid. He showed us how to live, how to love, how to forgive and how to die. He taught us how to embrace the cross in the most excruciating moments of life, knowing that the cross was not God’s final answer.

That a person is declared “Blessed” is not a statement about perfection. It does not mean that the person was without imperfection, blindness, deafness or sin. Nor is it a 360 evaluation of the Pontificate or of the Vatican. Beatification and Canonization mean that a person lived his or her life with God, relying totally on God’s infinite mercy, going forward with God’s strength and power, believing in the impossible, loving one’s enemies and persecutors, forgiving in the midst of evil and violence, hoping beyond all hope, and leaving the world a better place. That person lets those around him know that there is a force or spirit animating his or her life that is not of this world, but the next. Such a person lets us catch a glimpse of the greatness and holiness to which we are all called, and shows us the face of God as we journey on our pilgrim way on earth.

In the life of Karol Wojytyla, the boy from Wadowice who would grow up to be a priest and Bishop of Krakow, the Bishop of Rome, and a hero for the ages, holiness was contagious. We have all been touched and changed by it. Pope John Paul II was not only “Holy Father” but “a Father who was and is Holy.” At his funeral mass on April 8, 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told the world that the Holy Father was watching us and blessing us ‘from the window of the Father’s House.”

As we prepare for Sunday May 1, 2011, the Beatification of this great servant, priest and bishop, may we learn from “Papa Wojtyla” how to cross thresholds, open doors, build bridges, embrace the Cross of suffering and proclaim the Gospel of Life to the people of our time. May we learn how to live, to suffer and die unto the Lord. Let us pray to have a small portion of the fidelity of Peter’s witness and the boldness of Paul’s proclamation that were so mightily present in Karol Wojtyla – Blessed John Paul II. May he intercede for us and for all those who suffer in body and spirit, and give us the desire to become holy and to be saints.