Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
October 18, 1999
On the frailty of our pope
Secular media coverage of Pope John Paul has pretty much boiled down to one point - the man is sick and frail. When the pope visits a foreign land, the story is that he can no longer kiss the ground. When the pope preaches on heaven, hell and purgatory, he is said to be pondering his own imminent demise.
His left hand shakes, he walks slowly and stiffly - these are the main news items from the Vatican, around which everything else is garnish. With the 21st anniversary of Pope John Paul's election on Oct. 16, there may well be more of the same.
This approach to news is a variation on what we heard in the early 1990s when the pope was more robust. Then the story, spiked by the inside dope from supposedly well-informed sources, was that the Vatican was deliberately keeping the public in the dark about some horrible disease, probably cancer, affecting the pope and that he would be dead in a maximum of four years, likely sooner.
The British journalist who was the main perpetrator of this bunk has gone to his own eternal reward and the "well-informed sources" have been unable to find another gullible journalist to spread their fictions.
One thing is certain - some day Pope John Paul will die. All the supporters of the culture of death who have spent the last decade predicting awaiting that day will then be able to say, "I told you so."
But may the pope live many more years. He still has much to teach us, if we would but listen. He teaches with the spoken word, the written word and the example of his life. The three mesh remarkably well.
One of the great teachings of this pontificate, perhaps its greatest, is the redemptive power of human suffering when it is linked to the cross of Jesus Christ. This is the real story emanating from the Vatican today, one which the secular media could pass on if they were not so entrapped in secularism.
Suffering has repeatedly marked the life of Karol Wojtyla since his childhood. When he became pope, we were at first entranced by his vigour - a pope who hiked in the mountains and who threw himself into crowds with enthusiasm. But when he took a bullet to his stomach in May 1981, we began to see a different side of him. It was a side which became more evident in his many falls, injuries and trips to the hospital.
In 1984, Pope John Paul wrote an unprecedented letter On The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering. This letter is a profound reflection on St. Paul's words to the Colossians: "In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church" (1:24).
The pope says suffering was not meant to exist - it is the result of sin and is itself evil. We should do what we can to eliminate suffering. But, paradoxically, suffering has the potential for good. The suffering person naturally asks God, "Why must I suffer?" and is thus drawn to reflect on that which transcends human horizons. By linking one's own suffering to that of Christ, one can help transform evil into good.
He goes on to write, "When this body is gravely ill, totally incapacitated, and the person is almost incapable of living and acting, all the more do interior maturity and spiritual greatness become evident, constituting a touching lesson to those who are healthy and normal" (n. 26).
The pope would never apply those words to himself, but they are, in fact, what we today see being enacted in his own person. Our Western world is so mesmerized by the glamour of youth and beauty that it is almost incapable of learning the "touching lesson" of sickness, suffering and death.
So often we want to save the world by our own strength. And yet the lesson of the cross is that it is in our weakness that Christ's saving power is revealed. It's a hard lesson to learn. But it is one which the life of the pope will teach if we but have the eyes to see.
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