I have been thinking about John Paul II. Everyone has, I suppose. The pope yesterday missed Ash Wednesday services at the Vatican. This after a recent hospitalization.
Ash Wednesday reminds Catholics that we will leave this world some day, that from dust we came and to dust we will return. We are asked to renew our spiritual lives, to give up some small pleasure and give that sacrifice to God, at least until the spring, and Easter.
The pope’s long physical decline is part of a long goodbye that carries within it meaning. I want to talk at some length about how some see that meaning, and about how I saw John Paul 18 months ago.
* * *
After seeing him I thought: I saw a saint at sunset. It was actually early morning, 7:30 a.m. according to my notes, on July 2, 2003. A brilliant morning in the middle of the worst Roman heat wave in a century. The city was quiet, the streets soft with the heat.
Hundreds of us had gathered in the Piazza Del Suffizo, in the shadow of Bernini’s colonnade, the marble columns that curve outward around St. Peter’s Square. The breeze was warm, the pounding heat gathering, and we fanned ourselves with thin green Papal Audience tickets. The crowd was happy—chirping nuns, clicking tourists.
We were about to see the pope at his weekly audience. Among us: A group of deaf Italian adults in white baseball caps, with silk Vatican flags—green, gold and white—tied around their necks. Members of a choir from the Archdiocese of St Louis. A group of nuns from the Little Mission for the Deaf in Bologna, Italy. There was a man from Monterrey, Mexico, with his wife and two children. As the crowd grew we were pressed close, and began talking as if we knew each other.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
“To see the pope,” said the man from Monterrey. “He is the most important Christian in the world. He is the follower of Christ.” When minutes later I read the quote back to him from my notebook he edited it. “He is the most important person in the whole world.”
I talked to a woman with a hat made of hay. Spiky yellow straw actually, the brim down to shade her face. She was wearing a big white clamshell suspended from a necklace. She was 45 or 50 and looked like pictures of the older, weathered Greta Garbo. She told me she was on a pilgrimage. She had walked hundreds of miles in a tour of Marian sites. She and her husband—bearish, gray-bearded—had departed upper Austria in May, and had arrived the preceding day, July 1. They had walked on highways and small roads. She showed me her diary of the pilgrimage; in neat, clear script she had documented every church they had seen along the way. Her husband had drawn pictures of cathedrals in blue ballpoint ink. He had taken snapshots of little chapels and pasted them in the diary. “Here,” she said to me. She pointed to a page on which she had drawn her feet after six weeks of walking. They are comic line drawings of angular feet bruised by exaggerated calluses. Next to them she drew the lotions and bandages she had put upon the wounds. They had gone to mass every day of their journey, she said. And why had they come here?
“Why? To see il Papa!” She gestured as if to say: This is the culmination.
* * *
We filed through metal detectors that did not seem to work—no beeping or bopping, no one watching things closely—and were directed through a paved area just off St Peter’s square. (Later, when I would return to it, a young priest would tell me, “We think he may have been crucified just under here.” I shook my head. “St. Peter. It may have been just about here, down there.” And he pointed at the pavement.)
We entered the Paul VI Audience Hall, an enormous concrete structure, cavernous and modern, like a big suburban evangelical church. Rows of fixed seats were pointed toward the stage. People were filing in single file and in groups, hundreds of them, then thousands. I walked among them and heard the language of France, England, Mexico, Austria, the Czech Republic. There were groups from West Africa, Germany, Poland, Scotland, Portugal and Brazil. A Romanian chorus of middle-aged women began to sing softly in their seats. When they finished, a choir from Bialystok, Poland, 30 young women and men, began to sing lustily.
Suddenly there was a rustling up front. Dozens of African women danced in, laughing and clapping in floor-length white cotton dresses. On the hems were sewn the words “Archdiocese of Freetown,” Sierra Leone. They sat next to Catholic school children from Rwanda, who were clapping and shaking tambourines.
I thought: The whole church is here.
The room rocked. Cheering here, drums there, an American spiritual crooned somewhere in the back. The choruses would pick up each other’s sound, so that a group from Santo Domingo would sing, and as they finished a young male choir from Poland, in white tie and tails, would take up the song, and then as they finished a group of American Indians—in native dress and full headdresses they looked like beautiful peacocks—would break into native drums. I thought the disparate but unified members of the audience, as they echoed and supported each other, were like a living symbol of the church every day in the world.
Something came alive on the stage. Two Swiss guards in their purple-and-orange uniforms, big red plumes on their black helmets, entered the stage and stood erect in the middle, with metal staffs. The audience began to applaud.
Then a flurry of cardinals and bishops in black, with red and purple sashes. Then two papal chamberlains in white tie and tails.
* * *
We looked to the left of the stage. There was movement.
It was him, the pope—20 minutes early. The woman next to me, a regular audience-goer, laughed. “When he’s ready, he’s ready these days,” she yelled to me over the noise.
The pope was rolled onto the stage. He was seated in a brown wooden chair that rested within some kind of wooden rig on little wheels. They pushed him forward slowly. It was like a wheel-throne; it was like the kind of big wooden roller they use to get something off the top shelf at Home Depot. It looked both practical and absurd.
He was dressed all in white, bent forward in his chair. White surplice, white beanie, white gold-fringed sash. As the wheel-throne reached the center of the stage a scrum of aides and cardinals surrounded his chair. They helped him to his feet, helped him gain balance, helped transfer him to a white upholstered high-backed chair. Then they turned it toward the audience.
He looked out at us. We looked back at him. His face was—oh, his face!
I thought of the little girl on John Paul’s last trip to Canada, two years before. She was a child, 6 or so, and she had it in her head that the pope was the best person in the world. So her parents brought her to a big outdoor mass, and she was chosen to give him flowers. She walked up to him with her little bouquet and held it toward him. He leaned his upper body toward her in his chair. Then she turned and ran sobbing from the stage with what seemed like panic. Because he was old and his head was big and his neck and back were curled and the effort to lift his head so you can see his face draws his features down, and the Parkinsonian mask that freezes his face makes him look angry, or ill-meaning, or sad. So the poor girl ran.
* * *
Now the crowd took to its feet and the applause was continuous. But it was muted somehow, not full of joy as the crowd had been before the audience had begun.
His cassock was too short—six inches off the floor. We could see his white cotton sport socks. We could see his worn brown shoes. This is a pontiff who wears old loafers, like a working man, like a regular man, and not the traditional silk slippers of a pope.
“We love you, Papa!” someone called out. “We love you, Holy Father.”
He lifted his head with effort. We took our seats. Suddenly I realized the purpose of a Vatican announcement that had been issued the week before, when I had just arrived in Rome. The Holy Father, the press office said, would not go hiking in the hills this summer as he had in the past, but instead would work through his vacation writing a memoir of his early years. Rome buzzed; how amazing that the old man would produce a book on his time off. What they didn’t notice, what had been cleverly obscured by the announcement, is that the pope’s legs don’t work anymore. Of course he isn’t hiking.
When I mentioned this later to a priest in Rome, he laughed. He told me John Paul has grown sensitive about speculation regarding his illnesses, and had recently groused, half comically, to an American cardinal, “Tell those American journalists the pope doesn’t run the church with his feet.”
* * *
The pope read to us from remarks typed on white letter-size paper. His voice was blurry and thick. The papers trembled in his hand. He spoke in Italian. The thin-necked microphone was sensitive; we could hear him breathe between the sentences.
People in the audience became distracted. Then the pope spoke in Polish and his voice became stronger, and even though most of the people in the audience didn’t understand what he was saying they quieted, and leaned forward.
He had a bad tremor in his left arm. During the translation he leaned his head and rested his chin on his left hand, in an attempt to control the tremor.
Then the pope cleared his throat and spoke in English. But the only words I could make out were, “the spirit of the Beatitudes.” Later I read the Associated Press report of the pope’s message. He had spoken of Psalm 145, which he called “a song of praise for the morning.” It ends, he said, “in a proclamation of the sovereignty of God over human history.” It reminds us, he said, that “the Lord shall reign forever.”
Schoolchildren from Santo Domingo cheered the old chant: Juan Pablo, Segundo, el padre de el mundo.
He raised his right hand to acknowledge the chants. The playfulness of the past—the way he used to wave with both hands, up and down, and say “Woo woo!” to the children who cheered him in New York and Chicago so long ago—is not possible to him any more.
And yet as I watched him I realized I did not see him as ill and frail. I saw him as encased—trapped in there, in an outer immobility. And yet inside he is still John Paul.
I thought: he is a victim soul. His suffering has meaning.
He is teaching us something through his pain.
* * *
He sang to us a little at the end, like an old man sitting in the sun. Most of us couldn’t tell the words or the tune but he was doing it for us, and there was something so beautiful and moving in it. I turned to a friend. “We are hearing a saint singing,” I said. I breathed it in, let the sound enter my ears. I wanted to put my hands over them and hold the sound in my head.
Then John Paul made the sign of the cross. The cardinals came and knelt before him and kissed his hand. A group of American Indians mounted the stage to kneel before him. Dozens of newly-wed couples in gowns and tuxedoes mounted the stage two by two to receive his blessing. Then the sick—children rolled out onto the stage in hospital beds, people in wheelchairs.
I always get the feeling with John Paul that if he could narrow down who he meets and blesses to those he likes best it would not be cardinals, princes or congressmen but nuns from obscure convents and Down syndrome children. Especially the latter. Because they have suffered, and because in some serious and amazing way they understand more than most people. Everyone else gets tied up in ambition and ideas and bustle, but the modest and limited are able to receive this message more deeply and openly: God loves us, his love is all around us, he made us to love him and play with him and serve him and be happy.
I know a woman who once worked with the retarded. The Down syndrome children would ask her to comb her long blond hair, and then they’d get lost in it, lost in the beauty of it. They touched it and patted it and walked through it like curtains. It takes a kind of spiritual genius to know a hunk of long blond hair is heaven. They knew. The pope knows they know.
* * *
And then the audience was over. The scrum of handlers and Cardinals descended again and surrounded the pope. They hauled him up, helped him transfer from the white chair back to the wheel throne. And then they began to push him off the stage.
He turned to us, raised his right hand and made a halting sign of the cross. And then the Poles in the audience broke into the song that went back to the beginning, the authentic sound of 25 years ago, when John Paul first walked onto the Vatican balcony and looked out at the world. They had sung it for him at every stop along the way of his long papacy, through good times and bad. “Stolat! Stolat! May you live a hundred years.”
I stayed until the very end, two hours. Then I turned to see all the people standing behind me, to see their faces so I could describe them someday. And I was taken aback.
Because they were gone. Most of them, two-thirds, had already left. They were gone before the pope had even left the stage. As if they’d had their ticket punched—I saw the old guy—and were on their way next to see the cats in the Coliseum.
His whole life is a goodbye tour now. He knows they come to see him in part because they want to be able to say, “I saw John Paul the Great.” And so there is around him a sense of inescapable twilight.
An explosion of joy and sadness will mark his passing. Joy because it is time now for a younger man to put his stamp upon the age. Sadness because he is a giant, the last pope of the old age. And something else. After him the real modern world begins, the new one, the post-9/11 one, and all will be in play. He was the last fruit of the old world. His presence was definite and dense as the Vatican itself.
* * *
His suffering is his witness. It has a purpose. It is telling us something. Yesterday, in thinking about this and remembering that audience, I called the great writer and thinker Michael Novak. He thought aloud for me. St. Therese of Lisieux, he reminded me, believed her suffering could help others. She would take her moments of pain or annoyance or sadness and offer them to God, believing that they became united with God’s love, united that is with something infinitely powerful which works always for the betterment of man. She would ask God to take her suffering and use it to help the missionaries of the world. She knew, Mr. Novak said, what Dostoevsky knew: there’s a kind of web around the world, an electric web in which we’re all united in suffering and in love. When you give to it what you have, you add to the communion of love all around the world. Therese was a Carmelite. Mr. Novak spoke of George Weigel’s observation that the pope has a Carmelite soul, a soul at home with the Carmelite tradition of everyday mysticism.
What should the pope’s suffering tell us? Several things, said Mr. Novak. He is telling us it is important in an age like ours to honor the suffering of the old and the infirm. He wants us to know they have a place in life and a purpose. He not only says this; he lives it. He was an actor as a youth; he teaches by doing and showing, by being. His suffering is a drama he is living out quite deliberately. John Paul stands for life, for all of life. He wants to honor what the world does not honor.
But why, I said, does God allow this man he must so love to be dragged through the world in pain? He could have taken him years ago. Maybe, said Mr. Novak, God wants to show us how much he loves us, and he is doing it right now by letting the pope show us how much he loves us. Christ couldn’t take it anymore during his passion, and yet he kept going.
Which reminded me of something the pope said to a friend when the subject of retirement came up a few years ago: “Christ didn’t come down from the cross.” Christ left when his work was done.
Mr. Novak noted that John Paul II has often spoken of the need to heal the thousand-year breach in the church between East and West. The pope believes his work did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall, that it includes attempting to repair the great split between Rome and Constantinople and Moscow. Mr. Novak said he may well be using his suffering, giving it to God to heal it. “He will be a very unhappy man if he doesn’t get to Moscow before he dies,” said Mr. Novak. “St. Peter may have a lot to answer for.”