Pope John Paul II was one of the great men of the last century. Not only did he lead the largest church in the world, but he was also a powerful moral and political figure. He was a constant champion of the poor and oppressed. He traveled to more than a hundred countries to take the Word of God directly to the peoples of the world.
He was a central figure in the fall of Communism, along with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. John Paul II was key in pulling the linchpin of Poland out of the Eastern Bloc through his support of the Solidarity movement and religious freedoms.
After the fall of Communism, John Paul II turned his attention to many of the evils of Western society: abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty and the soulless secularism and consumerism that make up what he called the “Culture of Death.”
He died with many of the tenants of this culture still intact. Yet his suffering and death may have been his best statement against it.
John Paul suffered for many years from the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and over the last decade, became increasingly feeble. For years, he had been confined to a mobile chair in which he made his public appearances. His ability to speak slowly deteriorated, and he was often unable to finish short speeches.
After falling ill with the flu on Feb. 2, he was hospitalized again and had a tube inserted into his throat to allow him to breathe. In the final weeks leading up to his death, he was so ill that he was unable to even speak to his followers. The only expression left to him was his ability to make the sign of the cross, blessing the multitudes.
This type of physical infirmity was especially striking due to the type of man John Paul II was. An enthusiastic athlete, he regularly went skiing until his illness prevented him from doing so. As a young man in Poland, he was involved in the underground theater that operated during the Nazi occupation of Poland. To be unable to move or speak must have been especially painful for him.
It was certainly painful for many Catholics. It was disheartening to watch this once eloquent man stumble through his speeches with a slurred voice and trembling hand. As his illness progressed, there were quite a few Catholics who questioned his ability to lead the Church, although they often preferred to go by the appellation, “an unnamed source.”
But despite his illness and his critics, he soldiered bravely on, refusing to step down from the Chair of Peter. He insisted that his work on earth was not done, and would not be done until God called him from this life. He continued to struggle with his illness in spite of the suffering.
What’s more, he inspired his followers with his pain, constantly reminding us that there is a purpose in suffering. One of the ills in Western society is that it seeks to end suffering at all cost, even at the cost of human life. One needs only to look at the brutal rationalization accompanying the killing of the unborn and the terminally ill. They are better off dead than living a life of pain, the argument goes.
While a feeding tube had been removed from Terri Schiavo a week earlier under this same logic, John Paul II had one inserted into him because he could no longer swallow. The juxtaposition of these two events produced a powerful contrast: one invalid killed for expedience and another invalid choosing life.
When John Paul II lay dying, he asked his aide to read him the passage from the Gospels relating Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. Christ’s death was done to save. John Paul II’s death, and his whole life, allowed him to teach. It is somehow fitting that a bent, suffering old man would preach to a world increasingly obsessed with youth and pleasure the true value of life by his death. That is probably the best monument that can be erected to this holy man. Rest in Peace.
Sean Paroski, whose column appears every Thursday, is a senior applied mathematics major.