Health of the pope now more an issue

Papacy: John Paul II will be 80 in May, and the demands of the office are colossal. It might be time for him to consider retirement.

November 28, 1999|By Joseph Gallagher

With the start of the Catholic Holy Year scheduled for Christmas, the question of Pope John Paul II's health takes on fresh urgency.

Millions of pilgrims will visit Rome for the rare combination of millennial and Holy Year observances, highlighted by an extraordinary number of papal audiences. Away from Rome, the pope is planning a March visit to the Holy Land, and is said to want to visit biblical sites in Iraq and Mount Sinai as well.

The ordinary demands of the modern papacy are crushing enough for a young man. But with an assassination attempt and six subsequent surgeries behind him, John Paul II will be 80 on May 18. He has served as a bishop of Rome for more than 21 years, and will soon become the eighth longest-reigning pope in history. He is obviously and increasingly suffering from something similar to Parkinson's disease.

From day one of his papacy, John Paul II has been almost obsessed with leading his billion-member church into the Third Christian Millennium. However, his detailed planning did not envisage the physical problems which assail him. If he lives through the Holy Year, the question arises, what next?

First, popes are not necessarily popes for life. Staring in 235 A.D., at least 10 popes resigned or were deposed. Church law envisions the possibility of abdication: "Should it happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns from his office, it is required for validity that the resignation be freely made and properly manifested." (Canon 332 No. 2)

The last pope to resign voluntarily, Celestine V, was swiftly canonized. Formerly a hermit in his 80s, this Pietro del Morrone was elected under protest in 1294 after a Vatican vacancy that had lasted for two years and three months. The saintly man was an administrative disaster and abdicated after five months. His legal adviser, and the man who succeeded him, was Boniface VIII.

Boniface VIII was the first pope to promulgate a Catholic Holy Year, also known as a Jubilee Year. His was held in 1300. The Jubilee idea was inspired by a passage in the Jewish Bible calling for period of renewal every 50 years (Leviticus 25). It was to be initiated by the blowing of a ram's horn, yobel in Hebrew -- whence the word jubilee.

For Catholics, a jubilee is a time of spiritual renewal, with emphasis on forgiveness and pilgrimages. The frequency of jubilees has varied through the past seven centuries, and depends on the wishes of the pope.

John Paul II is a conscientious man. If he finds that he is increasingly unable to shoulder the papacy with its colossal physical, emotional and mental demands, he could weigh the option of resignation.

A story circulating some time ago had it that as he was going over his long-range schedule and came to the end of 2000. He stopped and said, "Someone else must deal with what follows."

One perfectly possible scenario has him declaring on his 80th birthday his intention to retire after the Holy Year to a Carmelite monastery. Upon such a resignation, a conclave would be held in an orderly manner to elect a successor.

In his youth, John Paul had wanted very much to become a Carmelite friar. A fine sense of symmetry would bring his extraordinary life to a close within the kind of contemplative walls which nurtured and sheltered his hero saints, St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila.

The Rev. Joseph Gallagher is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

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