March 18, 2005


The Lenten witness of Pope John Paul II

Watching Pope John Paul II suffer so publicly, with the whole world watching and speculating openly about his condition and his impending death, we are naturally tempted to ask, “Why?”

Why does such a good man have to suffer so much? Why does he continue to stay in office, where he is forced to do so much in public? Why expose himself to this humiliation? Why not step aside and let a younger man assume the responsibilities and burdens of the Petrine ministry?

The 26 years of this pope’s ministry have been filled with “teachable moments.” From his first visit to his homeland (then-Communist Poland) to the forgiveness of his would-be assassin in prison to his historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the papacy of John Paul II has been characterized by dramatic gestures intended to illustrate Church teaching on the most fundamental, often controversial, issues of our time.

To say that this pope has a flair for the dramatic is an understatement. Everything about him is iconic—even his slurred speech and his often pained expressions. He is teaching us through his suffering, and he is challenging us to let go of the prejudices we all have against those who are elderly and sick.

The pope’s recently published memoir, Rise, Let Us Be on Our Way, contains some fascinating insights into the mind of John Paul II and his 45 years of experience as a bishop, cardinal and pope. He was reluctant to accept the call to become a bishop (at 38, he thought he was too young) and he was terrified by his surprise election as pope. He admits that, at first, he was intimidated by people who are sick or disabled. “I needed a lot of courage to stand before a sick person and enter, so to speak, into his physical and spiritual discomfort,” the pope said. “Only later did I begin to grasp the profound meaning of the mystery of human ­suffering.”

Now, Pope John Paul II is trying to share with us (and with the whole world) his profoundly personal understanding of the mystery of human suffering. He refuses to be intimidated by his own weakness or to shy away from the embarrassment and pain of the chronic illnesses that have reduced him to a mere shadow of his former self—the robust, articulate and courageous man who accepted the call to lead the Church of Christ more than a quarter century ago.

The Holy Father’s witness in the final days (months? years?) of his papacy is clearly a Lenten witness. By his suffering, and his very public humiliation, Pope John Paul II is reminding us that sickness and death are the tragic consequences of original sin. Even the pope loses his youth and vigor. Even good and holy people must suffer and die.

In his calm acceptance of pain and adversity, Pope John Paul II reveals the profound meaning of the mystery of human suffering and the hidden truth about every human being’s journey to God. Ready or not, every one of us will follow the Lord Jesus through the gates of suffering and death to the hope of eternal life.

Especially now, the life and ministry of Pope John Paul II is a profound Lenten witness, a time of spiritual preparation for the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ.

We pray that the Holy Father will have the courage and the strength to continue his witness to the mystery of human suffering for as long as the Father wills it. Then, when God decides that Pope John Paul II has accomplished all that God has called him to be and do, we pray that the Father will relieve the pope of all his suffering and humiliation and bring him peacefully to his heavenly home.

— Daniel Conway

(Daniel Conway is a member of the editorial committee of the board of directors of Criterion Press Inc.)


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