Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
March 14, 2005
Don't count Pope John Paul out
Pope John Paul's latest stay in the hospital has again spurred an abundance of media commentary on whether the pope should resign and let a younger man take over the reins of the Church. Certainly, there are serious questions that arise over the possibility of a pope who is in an extended coma. The pope, to take a significant example, is the only one who can appoint bishops. A pope unable to perform this duty for a period of years would leave many local churches in the lurch.
However, this has nothing to do with Pope John Paul's current condition. Nor is it the sort of case that lies at the heart of much of the media commentary.
Rather, such commentary seems to imply, "Well, Pope John Paul has had his day. Isn't it loading him with an unfair burden to keep him on as he grows weaker and weaker? Wouldn't the Church be better off with someone young and vigorous as its leader?"
This is where we confront the extraordinary denseness of the secular mindset.
It is often said that the Church is not a democracy. Neither, however, is it a monarchy or a corporation. It is not an organization centred around a clear chain of command. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it nicely: "The Church's first purpose is to be the sacrament of the inner union of men with God" (no. 775).
The pope is not the boss so much as he is the spiritual father. He is charged with coaxing the faithful into a closer relationship with God. Others also are ordained for that role, although the pope has a certain primacy.
More deeply than being a religious organization, the Church is a communion - a communion of the baptized with God and with each other.
The secular mindset, of course, cannot grasp this. To grasp this, one must see God not as the philosopher's impersonal First Cause, but as the Ultimate Lover in whom we live and move and have our being.
Pope John Paul was not engaged in hollow symbolism when he opted not to be crowned with the tiara at his installation in 1978. He was revisioning the papal office as evangelical, rather than monarchical. And so he has served for more than 26 years.
He has served those years as a witness to the transcendent dignity of the human person. The life of the human person is one that is fundamentally a quest for union with God. As such, the person is not a thing to be tossed on the scrap heap when its utility falters.
An aging, suffering, disabled pope can be as evangelical in his person as a young, vibrant pope whose prophetic words echo off the walls of the halls of power.
His witness can point to eternity just as clearly as that of the celebrity pope. Perhaps even more so.
The world - which so frequently treats people like things - badly needs the witness of Pope John Paul whose dignity remains undiminished even as he is speechless and lacking independent mobility. It is a witness from the threshold of eternity and it is a witness that testifies to the dignity of every sick, handicapped, unemployed and elderly person in the world.
Don't expect this pope to resign. For him to resign in any but the direst circumstances would be to provide a counter-witness to that for which he has stood so eloquently all his adult life.
If he is being stubborn in staying on, it is a holy stubbornness. It is a stubbornness that refused to bow in the face of communist oppression and a stubbornness that will not stop witnessing because the end of life draws near. This "stubbornness" is a resolute, unshakeable faith.
Don't count Pope John Paul out.
The secular world may be ready to bury him. And, one day he will die. But until that day - and perhaps especially on that day - he will be a sign to all who can see. His life is an eloquent testimony that humanity's greatest dignity comes from the fact that each of us has the potential to cross the threshold of hope.
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