Public suffering offered comfort to the afflicted

Final Lesson

A World In Mourning -- The Death Of Pope John Paul Ii

April 04, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

The public nature of Pope John Paul II's suffering - from the trembling of his hands brought on by Parkinson's disease to his final appearance at St. Peter's Square last week, when he tried tobut could not speak - was an extended lesson in the dignity and value of the lives of the most frail among us, theologians say.

The pontiff did not hide his many ailments as he grew more infirm. Though his speech was slurred and his head often slumped to his chest because of the Parkinson's, he appeared in public frequently and rejected seclusion.

In his final days, the Vatican was remarkably candid about his physical state, giving specific information about the medical treatment he was receiving and the gradual failure of his organs.

Theologians say the pope intended to use his suffering to give comfort to those similarly vulnerable or in pain. It was consistent with his defense of life in all stages, from the womb to old age.

"If the model of happiness in our culture is to be fit, trim, smiling and rising above the fray of anything that has to do with vulnerability or infirmity," said Peter Casarella, a theology professor at Catholic University, "then the pope is offering a very different version of human dignity: That which makes us most human is not the way we supersede life's troubles, but the way we deal with the challenges in life, including physical and spiritual suffering."

Some among the disabled might reject the notion that the pope was "suffering" from Parkinson's - he appeared to be enjoying life and carrying out his obligations as pontiff - but they praise him for setting an example for how the public need not shrink from those with infirmities.

"The pope lived openly with his disabilities, rejecting the notion that they needed to be hidden or feared, and in that way he did a service for people with disabilities worldwide, whether they're Catholic or otherwise," said Diane Coleman, who has spinal muscular atrophy and is president of Not Dead Yet, an organization that fights for the rights of the disabled and against assisted suicide and euthanasia.

In a culture that celebrates health and youth, the 84-year-old pope called attention to the not always pleasant process of aging and dying. Here was an old man who did not shuffle off to a monastery for his last years but instead forced the public to consider what he was enduring.

Such suffering has played an unusually prominent role in the American news media recently. Two days before the pope's death, Terri Schiavo died in Florida. The parents of the severely brain-damaged 41-year-old woman suffered in public for weeks, holding tearful news conferences to beg for the help of lawmakers and judges.

The Vatican supported Schiavo's parents in the legal battle over her fate and denounced the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube as contradictory to church teachings on the dignity of life and the protection of human rights. The pope was informed of Schiavo's death, the Vatican said.

"There is no doubt that exceptions cannot be allowed to the principle of the sacredness of life from conception to its natural death," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said in a statement last week. "Besides the principle of Christian ethics, this is also a principle of human civilization."

Pope John Paul used his debility as an opportunity to reaffirm the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to contraception, abortion and euthanasia, what he called the "culture of death." And his visible pain was a reminder that suffering is central to the Catholic faith.

In his message on the World Day of the Sick in February this year, the pope wrote, "Your suffering, dear sick people, is never wasted! Indeed, it is valuable for it is a mysterious but real sharing in the saving mission of the Son of God."

He could have been speaking as much from personal experience as religious doctrine. That month, he was rushed to the hospital with complications from the flu and nearly died. Several weeks ago, a severe respiratory infection led to the insertion of a breathing tube, and last week a feeding tube was inserted as a urinary tract infection caused a dangerous condition called septic shock.

The decline of Pope John Paul was all the more striking for the athletic, outdoorsy image he projected in the early years of his papacy. His ski vacations were widely reported, and he was a tireless traveler, visiting 129 countries in 104 trips abroad.

Watching the pope in his last public appearance on Wednesday, when he was wheeled to the window overlooking St. Peter's Square and was unable to speak to the masses gathered below, was painful to many.

"It was very difficult to watch," said the Rev. Joseph Rossi, a theology professor at Loyola College in Baltimore. "This vigorous man who hiked in the mountains and skied as a pope and swam as a pope was not able to speak. His weakness struck me. His humility struck me. His courage struck me."

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