THE FINAL DAYS OF JOHN PAUL II
When Karol Wojtyla was elected to the Throne of Peter on October 16, 1978, the world was dazzled by his sheer physical force. He was, to invoke a tired expression, a “man’s man”–rugged, handsome, brimming with energy and self-conﬁdence. Fr. Andrew Greeley, the American novelist and sociologist, rightly observed that he looked like a linebacker in American football. Archbishop Michael Miller, today a senior Vatican ofﬁcial, who at the time of Wojtyla’s election was a junior cleric in the Secretariat of State, said in a January 2005 reminiscence that from the moment John Paul II stepped out onto the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, “He simply dominated that space. He looked like he had been pope forever.”
In the press coverage from those early years, the Pope was dubbed “God’s athlete.” He skied, climbed mountains, swam, and had an undying passion for the outdoors. The story of his nomination to be a bishop in Poland, when he had to interrupt a camping trip in order to accept and then went immediately back to kayaking after he had signed the paperwork, became the stuff of legend. At the table, the Pope had the hearty appetite of a man who once worked in the Solvay salt quarry outside Krakow; he could wolf down a plate of Polish sausage and potatoes, and a glass of beer, with obvious gusto. Even when he was wearing his pontiﬁcal vestments and saying Mass, he projected a raw physical energy. When he traveled, he kept up a brutal schedule that left his aides, as well as the journalists who traveled with him, exhausted. It seemed that he chafed against the very limits of time and space, so brimming was he with determination and drive. In 1979, for example, he took a nine-day trip to the United States and Ireland, and over the course of that time he delivered a staggering seventy-six speeches, which works out to roughly eight and a half speeches per day. Oral tradition in the press corps that followed the Pope has it that at one point, exhausted reporters tossed a message up to the front section of the papal plane asking for a day off, which produced a smile from John Paul II, as if to say, “I dare you to keep up.”
This was a pope who understood the virtue of keeping in shape. Upon his election, he ordered a swimming pool installed at Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence outside Rome. When some in the Roman Curia, the papal bureaucracy, objected to the expense, he replied, “It’s cheaper than holding another conclave.” Coming fast on the death of his predecessor, Pope John Paul I, after just thirty-three days, his point was well taken.
John Paul II’s astounding drive did not, of course, come just from his physical strength. He also had a deep, unwavering conﬁdence in divine providence, that God would not send him any burden that was not accompanied by the strength to bear it, and that everything that happened to him was according to cosmic design. It was his ﬁrm belief, for example, that on May 13, 1981, the Virgin Mary altered the ﬂight path of would-be assassin Mohammed Ali Agca’s bullet in order to save his life and prolong his papacy. May 13 is the Feast Day of Our Lady of Fatima, and on the ﬁrst anniversary of the assassination attempt, John Paul II traveled to Fatima in Portugal in order to lay the bullet that doctors had removed from his body before the statue of the Virgin, thanking her for coming to his aide. The motto of his pontiﬁcate was Totus tuus, “totally yours,” meaning that he had offered it to the Virgin Mary, and now he believed she had returned the favor.
It was in part that belief in providence that allowed John Paul II to bear the sufferings and ailments of his ﬁnal years, not just with grim determination, but with serenity and good humor. Always the “great communicator,” John Paul learned to use his growing physical limits–the Parkinson’s disease, hip ailments, breathing problems, and arthritis–as another set of tools in his evangelizing toolbox, capitalizing on his inﬁrmity as a “teaching moment” about the value and dignity of human life from the beginning to the end.
In one sense, John Paul’s long winter, roughly dating from the mid1990s to his death on April 2, 2005, illustrates the inhuman nature of the job he held. To be a pope is, in effect, a life sentence, and by the great Jubilee Year of 2000, the toll it had taken on John Paul II was unmistakable. His once-beaming, lively face had become frozen into a sort of Parkinsonian mask. His stooped frame and trembling hands spoke more eloquently than words ever could about the bone-crushing nature of the papacy. Yet the Pope’s deep faith meant that it never even crossed his mind to abandon his post. Later, some would read his ﬁnal will and testament, released days after his death, to indicate doubt on this question; John Paul wrote in 2000, “I hope [the Lord] will help me to recognize up to what point I must continue this service to which I was called on October 16, 1978.” It seems clear, however, that John Paul was referring in this passage to the prospect of death, not resignation. He added in the very next line, “I ask him to call me back when He Himself wishes.” As John Paul said on numerous occasions, “Christ did not come down off the Cross.” John Paul was convinced that God had given him a mission, and God would decide when it was complete.
On what turned out to be one of his ﬁnal apostolic voyages, to Christianity’s premier healing shrine in Lourdes, France, in the summer of 2004, John Paul II declared himself a “sick man among the sick.” By that stage, his transformation from corporate CEO to an icon of human suffering was complete. As I walked through the crowd of 200,000 people gathered for John Paul’s Sunday morning Mass on August 15, I saw tens of thousands of people using canes and walkers and in wheelchairs. When the ailing, elderly John Paul II appeared, many in the crowd recognized one of their own, and the emotional response was electric.
“My mother had Parkinson’s disease for thirty years, and I was with her,” said Irish pilgrim Lyla Shakespeare. “When I looked at the Pope today, all I could see was my mother.” But, she added, “I also saw Christ.”
Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of France put the theological reading of John Paul’s physical decline this way: “The Pope, in his weakness, is living more than ever the role assigned to him of being the Vicar of Christ on earth, participating in the suffering of our Redeemer. Many times we have the idea that the head of the Church is like a super-manager of a great international company, a man of action who makes decisions and is judged on the basis of his effectiveness. But for believers the most effective action, the mystery of salvation, happens when Christ is on the cross and can’t do or decide anything other than to accept the will of the Father.”
Granted, not everyone saw it this way. Over the last years of John Paul’s life, there were persistent calls on him to resign on the grounds that he was harming the Church by depriving it of the opportunity for more energetic leadership. Some saw his determination to continue not as heroic but as stubborn, even egotistical, as if Roman Catholicism could not go on without him. Others felt the images of the suffering Pope weren’t so much inspiring as embarrassing, even pathetic. All this is a matter of legitimate discussion, and when the immediate outpouring of sorrow and respect that follows the death of any great ﬁgure subsides, no doubt that conversation will continue.
However one resolves those questions, it seems indisputable that in death, as in life, John Paul made us think. For all the ink that was spilled over nearly twenty-seven years about John Paul the politician or John Paul the globetrotter, in the long run it may be this ﬁnal period of his papacy, John Paul the invalid, that leaves the deepest impression. He made us watch him slump and wince and become confused, and thereby forced us to confront the reality of decline and death–our own and that of our loved ones. One simply could not watch the Pope in his last days and not think about the ﬁnal things, about the meaning and purpose of human life.
That, by itself, is a legacy.
THE FINAL DAYS
Looked at in reverse, it seems self-evident that from the hospitalization of February 1 forward we were on a papal “death watch,” that the end of John Paul’s long reign was in sight. Yet until the very end, the very night the Pope died, many Vatican ofﬁcials, journalists, and ordinary Romans remained skeptical that it would actually happen. We had survived so many health scares before that it seemed part of the script that John Paul would defy predictions of his demise once more and pull through. Just days before his death, senior aides were telling reporters that the Pope still intended to travel to Cologne, Germany, in August for World Youth Day, and they were serious. One reason that St. Peter’s Square did not swell with well-wishers until the very end was that Romans had seen it all before, and at some level had grown accustomed to thinking of John Paul II as virtually immortal.
Obviously, however, the end had to come for Karol Wojtyla as it does for all human beings, and that was the drama of February and March 2005 in Rome.
Tuesday, February 1
At approximately 10:50 p.m. Rome time, John Paul II was rushed from the papal apartments to the nearby Gemelli Polyclinic Hospital, where the tenth ﬂoor is permanently set aside for his use. Several hours later the Vatican reported that he had been suffering from respiratory problems complicated by spasms of the larynx, and that he had been placed under the care of the department of emergency medicine as a “precautionary move.” Long into the night, speculation swirled in the city and throughout the world, that the Pope might be in mortal danger. While the Vatican minimized the seriousness of the episode, press reports would later claim that John Paul had actually been minutes away from death due to severe respiratory difﬁculties.
(One comic aside: Word of the hospitalization broke around 11:00
p.m. in Rome, at which time a substantial chunk of the city’s journalistic community was at the Foreign Press Club at a gala dinner. I’m told that the buzzing of cell phones set on “vibrate” going off simultaneously produced an audible hum in the room, though I wasn’t there to witness it. Instead, my cell phone jarred me from the early stages of a good night’s sleep, which was obviously not to be.)
John Paul was no stranger to the Gemelli. He once jokingly referred to the hospital as the “third Vatican,” after the Vatican itself and his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, in the Alban hills outside Rome. This episode marked the ninth time the Pope had been hospitalized at the Gemelli over the course of his papacy, including the 1981 assassination attempt, though it was the ﬁrst time it had happened in response to a crisis in the middle of the night. The Pope’s inner circle had apparently hoped to hospitalize him without fanfare, and then make an announcement in the morning. How they expected to keep the news of an impromptu papal hospitalization under wraps for twelve hours is unclear, but in any event word leaked moments after the papal entourage pulled through the hospital gates, and from that point forward, it was off to the races for the world press.
The Pope’s health crisis was not a complete bolt from the blue, since on the previous Sunday, January 30, during his regular Angelus address, his voice had seemed strikingly hoarse and weak. Yet his body language that day did not seem alarming; John Paul was ﬂanked by a couple of small Italian children who helped him release two “peace doves,” one of which ﬂew back into the room, with John Paul laughing and playfully trying to bat it away. It was to be the last time the world saw John Paul II with the broad smile that was such a trademark of his public image.
Later that Sunday night, Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls announced that due to a case of the ﬂu, the Pope’s appointments would be canceled for the next day. On Monday evening, word broke that the Pope’s schedule for Tuesday and Wednesday had been scrubbed as well. Ofﬁcial conﬁrmation of the cancellations came Tuesday morning. By midday Tuesday, however, the sense was that he was improving and would probably return to work on Thursday. That same day, I spoke by telephone with Navarro-Valls, who is also a medical doctor, who joked that “a ﬂu given proper treatment lasts seven days, whereas the ﬂu without care runs seven days.” In other words, he expected the Pope was on his way to a normal recovery.
Obviously something dramatic transpired after dinner Tuesday night. Navarro-Valls later described it as “acute laryngeal tracheitis,” meaning the Pope had throat problems that led to difﬁcult breathing. Given his age and Parkinson’s disease, the Pope has long struggled for breath, and thus his personal physician, Renato Buzzonetti, who was summoned to monitor the Pope’s condition, decided not to gamble with the possibility of respiratory arrest. The Pope was placed in an ambulance and driven speedily through a Vatican side entrance to the Gemelli, about two and a half miles from St. Peter’s Square.
Vatican spokespersons the next day attempted to calm fears by insisting that there was “nothing alarming.” Wednesday morning, February 2, Navarro-Valls went to the Gemelli to see the Pope, and then told journalists that John Paul was in good spirits. The Pope’s vital signs were normal, Navarro-Valls said, he slept during the night, and was under the care of the hospital’s department of emergency medicine. In remarks to journalists, Navarro-Valls added that the Pope had a “slight fever,” but had never lost consciousness, had not undergone a CAT scan (as had been initially reported in some Italian newspapers), and was preparing to say Mass with his private secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz. Later in the morning, Navarro-Valls told Vatican Radio that the Pope was expected to remain at Gemelli just for “a few days.”