"The face in the window high above St. Peter's Square is small and distant and, even when viewed through a long lens, almost without expression. The voice quavers, just a few words breathed with excruciating effort, audible over loudspeakers, but only barely comprehensible. Few people can get close enough to Pope John Paul II to try to read the thoughts behind the mask of sickness on a Sunday morning, but some of those who have approached him say they've glimpsed the pain of a man with a vital mind, a man who has loved life enormously, trapped now in a body that brings him nothing but suffering. "You can see it in his eyes," says such a priest. "To be imprisoned like this must cause him tremendous agony."
And yet—because he is the leader of a billion Roman Catholics; because he is the first pontiff of the satellite and Internet age, reaching out to billions more, and because he is John Paul II, who has ruled the church for more than 26 years—in that public experience of suffering lies enormous power. And he knows it. More than 20 years ago, after recovering from the pistol shot that almost took his life in front of St. Peter's, John Paul declared that suffering, as such, is one of the most powerful messages in Christianity. "Human suffering evokes compassion," he wrote in 1984, "it also evokes respect, and in its own way it intimidates." In 1994, as age and infirmity began to incapacitate John Paul publicly, he told his followers he had heard God and was about to change the way he led the church. "I must lead her with suffering," he said. "The pope must suffer so that every family and the world should see that there is, I would say, a higher gospel: the gospel of suffering, with which one must prepare the future."
Now, to the frustration of some reformers in the church who would like to see the 84-year-old pontiff resign, John Paul's personal Calvary has become his most powerful message. Every tremor in his hands takes on meaning. (Although the Vatican has never officially confirmed the details of John Paul's principal afflictions, senior clerics admit privately that he has Parkinson's disease.) The spectacle of his condition crystallizes his ferocious attachment to life—the most central, coherent and consistent teaching of his papacy—whether that life is threatened in the womb by abortion, or in old age by euthanasia.
A sense of high drama about the pope's condition intensified when he was rushed to a hospital on Feb. 1, with complications from the flu. He is so frail that he nearly died, and he might well have slipped into a coma. Now, this week, a conference is being convened in Rome that's expected to recommend maintaining life support even for people in a "permanent vegetative state" without any discernible brain functions. Inevitably this raises questions about just how long the pontiff himself might be kept alive if he is ever reduced to such a condition. Yet the chances of John Paul's stepping down, or being removed, are slight.
Many Catholics see the pope's suffering as something like the agony of Jesus himself, and neither John Paul nor those around him discourage such comparisons. When asked a few years ago if he might consider resigning, John Paul reportedly asked, in reply, "Did Christ come down from the cross?" His close aides say that debate about his ability to administer the church, as if he were the CEO of a secular corporation, essentially misses the point. This pope is not doing a job, he is carrying out a divine mission, and his pain is at its core.
This exaltation of suffering may be difficult for many non-Catholics to understand. (Protestant crosses, typically, do not depict Jesus at all, much less in the death throes shown by Catholic crucifixes.) Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" attempted to convey the power of suffering in a way that was graphic, accessible and not a little sensational. But suffering, scholars point out, is at the very core of the faith; it is the vital link between the human experience and that of Christ as savior. He was a suffering victim who seemed to have been defeated by the earthly powers of his time. But in his moment of apparent weakness and defeat, Christians see him as triumphant, dying for humanity's sins and opening the way to heaven.
"The cross is not just something you hang on the wall," says Father Justo Lacunza-Balda, a missionary and director of the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies. "Christianity is not born in a laboratory or a schoolroom; it's not conceived in an institute of higher learning. It's about suffering, torture, the experience of Christ on the cross." And it is about hope. In Africa, for instance, where the Catholic Church is growing faster than anywhere else in the world, the afflicted pope can be seen as "a living presence of the very essence of Christianity, which is the cross—and resurrection," says Lacunza-Balda. "He's not just an icon, he is the incarnation in his whole life of the message of Christ."
In the pope's 1984 treatise on the redemptive power of suffering, "Salvifici Doloris," he argued that suffering is not punishment for a crime or a sin. As Job understood, as Isaiah preached in the Old Testament, and as Christ taught in the Gospels and in his life, suffering is merely part of the human condition—and can best be answered with love. "Suffering seems to belong to man's transcendence," wrote John Paul. "It is one of those points in which man is in a certain sense 'destined' to go beyond himself.""
I have been recommending the Pope's encyclical "Salvifici Dolores" for years now to those who struggle with the question of human suffering. It remains to my thinking to be the most powerful, enlightened and wholly Christian discussion of the topic I have read.
The Pope now lives it out for all to see.