It is no secret that Karol Wojtyla, as a young man and even during
the early years of his pontificate, was a picture of health, vigor
and vitality. As an athlete skilled in soccer, swimming, canoeing
and skiing, he exhibited a great physical presence.
During his papal trip to the United States in 1979, he rode through
Manhattan in the back of a limousine with an opening in the roof
that allowed him to be visible to the crowd from the waist up. He
was in excellent physical condition, waving to the crowds with just
the right amount of drama as the vehicle moved slowly along. (This
was before the 1981 assassination attempt in Rome and the days of
the “popemobile,” with its bulletproof glass protecting the pope.)
These are all reminders of John Paul’s healthier days when he had
all the physical stamina and charm any human could want. The pope
did regain—for a time—his health and vigor after recuperating from
the 1981 assassination attempt.
In the early 90s, however, a series of health problems began to
take their toll. In 1992, the pope had colon surgery, involving
removal of a noncancerous tumor. The next year he fell and dislocated
a shoulder. In 1994, he suffered a broken femur in another fall.
An appendectomy followed in 1996. During these years, moreover,
a Parkinson-like condition, if not the disease itself, began to
reveal its visible effects.
The point of these sobering details is to show that John Paul was
clearly entering the part of his life’s journey marked by failing
health and suffering.
Describing the Holy Father in the fall of 1998, Cardinal Joseph
Ratzinger stated: “The pain is written on his face. His figure is
bent, and he needs to support himself on his pastoral staff. He
leans on the cross, on the crucifix....” Certainly John Paul was
beginning to lean on Christ’s cross in more ways than one.
Bearing Infirmities With Honor
The January 1998 papal trip to Cuba posed a sharp contrast to
John Paul’s United States visit in 1979. As a writer for St.
Anthony Messenger, who had personally covered both his 1979
USA trip and the Cuba trip of 98, I had a firsthand experience
of the enormous change in the pope’s health. In Cuba the pope’s
athletic stamina was gone. His gait was slow and at times shuffling,
his speech was often slurred and his hand sometimes trembled.
But frankly, I felt there was something beautiful and noble in
the pope’s witness. His courageous perseverance in carrying out
his activities as pope, despite his physical afflictions, was a
heart-lifting example for all of us. This was, perhaps, doubly true
for all those people around the globe who were themselves bearing
some cross or affliction. Many of us, faced with the same tests,
would be tempted to shrink from public view, as if infirmity were
an embarrassment or personal disgrace.
Not so our brother John Paul II! He refused to go into hiding as
long as he could effectively fulfill his ministry as pope. He bore
his infirmities as if they were badges of honor and opportunities
for imitating the courage of the suffering Christ.
His humble, unpretentious and unembarrassed acceptance of suffering
was a dramatic form of witness. The pope offered the world a wonderful
model for responding with grace to the test of suffering and illness.
As Cardinal Ratzinger observed, John Paul II helps us realize that
“even age has a message, and suffering a dignity and a salvific
While the pope was in Cuba, this anecdote was circulating. Someone
asked the pope if it would be better if he retired. “After all,
Holy Father,” the questioner pointed out, “you have trouble walking
and your hand trembles.”
“Fortunately,” the pope quipped, “I don’t run the Church with my
feet or my hands, but with my mind!”
We cannot be certain of the authenticity of the story, but it captures
something of the pope’s spirit—and his ability to respond to challenges
with good humor.
Writing About the Meaning of Suffering
Besides being a heroic witness in the face of suffering, Pope
John Paul II has often written inspiringly on the subject. In 1984,
for example, he published the apostolic letter “On the Christian
Meaning of Suffering.” When confronted with suffering, most of us
desperately seek answers to the question Why? Why me? Why
now? Why in this unexpected form?
The pope, in his letter, states that Christ does not really give
us an answer to such questions, but rather a lived example. When
we approach Christ with our questions about the reason for suffering,
says the pope, we cannot help noticing that the one to whom we put
the questions “is himself suffering and wishes to answer...from
the Cross, from the heart of his own suffering....
“Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering,”
he points out, “but before all else he says: ‘Follow me!’ Come!
Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world....Gradually,
as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting
himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering
is revealed before him” (#26).
In 1993, Pope John Paul II instituted the Annual World Day of the
Sick as a way to bring compassion and greater attention to the sufferings
of humanity, as well as to the mystery of suffering itself. The
event is held on February 11 each year on the feast of Our Lady
of Lourdes. The pope explains that the Lourdes “shrine at the foot
of the Pyrenees has become a temple of human suffering” (#6).
In John Paul’s message for that First Annual World Day of the Sick,
he offered these words of comfort to suffering people around the
world: “Your sufferings, accepted and borne with unshakeable faith,
when joined to those of Christ take on extraordinary value for the
life of the Church and the good of humanity”(#5).
He also suggested in the same message that suffering can be transformed
into something noble and good: “In the light of Christ’s death and
resurrection, illness no longer appears as an exclusively negative
event,” he said. “[R]ather, it is seen as...an opportunity ‘to release
love..., to transform the whole of human civilization into a civilization
of love’ (Apostolic Letter Salvifici doloris, #30)” (#3).
We cannot really choose to have no pain in our lives, because pain
in some form is inescapable. We have no choice about pain or suffering.
Sooner or later everyone must face it. Even Jesus and his mother
had to undergo pain.
Whether we bear it with love or not, however, is a different matter.
We do have a real choice there. We are free to choose “the pain
of loving” or “the pain of not loving,” the latter being a pain
that is empty and barren—a pain without any redeeming qualities.
We know that Jesus and his mother and other heroic witnesses like
John Paul have chosen the “pain of loving.” That is, they undergo
suffering for the love of God and of humanity, so their pain has
The Pope's 'Letter to the Elderly'
In 1999, Pope John Paul II published a “Letter to the Elderly.”
Just as earlier in his pontificate the pope often showed a special
concern to the youth of the world, so now he shows a similar concern
for elderly people, who also represent a very important segment
of humanity. Like the pope himself, a good number of elderly people
are susceptible to suffering and failing health.
In his comments to the elderly, the pope reveals some of his own
sentiments about the challenges associated with aging, failing health
and the end of life on earth. He encourages his elderly brothers
and sisters “to live with serenity” the years that the Lord has
granted to them.
Then, John Paul adds this poignant, personal note: “...I feel a
spontaneous desire to share fully with you my own feelings at this
point of my life, after more than 20 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
“At the same time, I find great peace in thinking of the time when
the Lord will call me: from life to life! And so I often find myself
saying, with no trace of melancholy, a prayer recited by priests
after the celebration of the Eucharist: In hora mortis meae voca
me, et iube me venire ad te—at the hour of my death, call me
and bid me come to you. This is a prayer of Christian hope, which
in no way detracts from the joy of the present, while entrusting
the future to God’s gracious and loving care.
“‘Iube me venire ad te!’: This is the deepest yearning of
the human heart, even in those who are not conscious of it” (#17-18).
A Prayer for Peace at Life’s End
John Paul concludes his “Letter to the Elderly” with a
prayer that expresses well his own faith-filled response to the
mystery and test of suffering:
“Grant, O Lord of Life, that we may... savor every season of our
lives as a gift filled with promise for the future.
“Grant that we may lovingly accept your will, and place ourselves
each day in your merciful hands.
“And, when the moment of our definitive ‘passage’ comes, grant
that we may face it with serenity, without regret for what we shall
leave behind. For in meeting you, after having sought you for so
long, we shall find once more every authentic good which we have
known here on earth, in the company of all who have gone before
us marked with the sign of faith and hope.
“Mary, Mother of pilgrim humanity, pray for us ‘now and at the
hour of our death.’ Keep us ever close to Jesus, your beloved Son
and our brother, the Lord of life and glory. Amen” (#18).
This article is excerpted from A
Retreat With Pope John Paul II: Be Not Afraid (B4204).
The book may be ordered for $8.95, plus $2.75 for shipping (Ohio
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or via our Web site, www.AmericanCatholic.org.