Reflection during the final illness of Pope John Paul II in April 2005
I looked with a little sadness at the pictures of Pope John Paul II giving a blessing from his room on Wednesday last. I thought to myself for a while that if he was my uncle I would not want him to go through that stress especially in public. Maybe I was uncomfortable with the whole idea of frailty and the loss of mobility that might face any of us in the future. Yet why should the sick be shut away from view as if it was an embarrassment to be ill? The Pope is clearly well cared for by those who love him dearly and who are helping him to continue his mission with great dedication. He is a real icon of our time and his public witness is an inspiration to so many who battle daily with illness. Sick people around the world take heart when they see him struggling to speak, to wave and to communicate. He visited Lourdes last year as a sick pilgrim and once again won the hearts of many by his presence and example.
His relapse on Thursday is a cause of great concern not only to members of his flock but to all who recognise in him a person of great integrity and a champion of the poor and the downtrodden. His own life story shaped him into a fearless leader who worked for peace and justice and to whom is credited a considerable role in the fall of the various communist regimes in Eastern Europe. He led no army of invasion yet he accomplished much by his commitment to speaking the truth and acting on it. Even as a clearly ill person he is still winning battles by his determination to give himself to his calling despite the disabilities.
People question his ability to function as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in his condition. We don’t require the Holy Father to be able to press a nuclear button or to launch a re-branding of the Catholic Church Incorporated. We want a man of prayer, a spiritual guide and a courageous preacher of the Gospel. He fulfils all three requirements with dignity especially with his disabilities. His suffering is a reminder of the human condition and is a living example of his own conviction about the precious gift of life from conception to natural death. He lives in his own life what he preaches as a spiritual leader. Why do we worry about his ability ‘to do the job’ as a sick person when the one he represents here on earth – Jesus Christ – achieved so much by his suffering and death on the cross? What looked like a shameful and embarrassing death was a moment of eternal triumph.
‘How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings Good News… The opening lines of the hymn I associate with Pope John Paul II ‘s visit to Ireland in 1979 came flooding from the lips of the people who prayed for the Pope at Mass in the Pro-Cathedral last Thursday after the news of his operation in Rome. I can still hear him, in my memory, hum along to the tune in his deep Slavic voice at Galway. Some people were in tears when we came to the end of the hymn as it brought back memories of three days, more than twenty five years ago, that are carved in our minds of a strong athletic Pope who travelled by helicopter to many of his engagements. I was in my last year as a student for the priesthood in Clonliffe College, Dublin and was selected as one of the ten deacons from around the country for the Mass in the Phoenix Park. That was my first encounter with the man who is the focus of so much prayer and compassionate concern at this time. I met him again Rome in 1992 when I conducted members of Our Lady’s Choral Society in St. Peter’s Square at the Beatification of the Irish Martyrs. I will always remember his piercing and compassionate eyes in our brief encounter after the ceremony.