April 2, 2005

The Passion of the Pope

[Republished without revision from March 7, 2005]

MORE FEARFUL NOW THAN DEATH, to those fortunate enough to live in the First World, is a long decay before death. We fear mortality but we fear a long morbidity before mortality more.

Living wills. Increases in approved euthanasia in many nations. Personal hordes of pills, "just in case." "Senior care" warehouses to sustain us; to fill us with tubes and place us in a bed that monitors our internals that the least little slide towards death triggers alarms and the staff scuttles in to haul our shattered bodies back again. Rinse and repeat until our 'living' will or tired family frees us. All these are our shared horror show of which we know but seldom speak.

We live more and more, but more and more we do not know how to die.

To teach us this thing the Pope will now enact the lesson, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. His is the ancient church that, teaching First Things in ways many now no longer care to hear, teaches us now about Last Things in ways that many fear to learn. And it is the leader of that Church who, as he

has in all things for decades, again leads in this teaching. If you are, as am I, late to the study of this man and his life, it would be best to pay attention now. This lesson of the Stoic will not be repeated.

In this sodden age of self-intoxication, the Stoic is little heard from but often admired even as we avoid emulation. He fights our wars and does his dying far afield.

At home we see only torrents of treacle-drenched homages to a drunken selfish kitchen Suicide prevail in our Daily Shows. These homages to the horrible are always many orders of magnitude above than any honors paid to those who selfless gave, on the same day, "the last full measure of devotion." The Romantic persists as our Feste, our jocular and foolish advisor about life. We know we listen to his Gospel of Fun at our peril, but still we hold him up to our ear the better to hear his lush platitudes:
"Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!"

With that promise of a palliatory, medicated release playing as the Muzak of our stunted souls, who would wish to heed the harsh lesson acted now by the Pope on the stage of the world? It seems so medieval, doesn't it? Here is a 'mere man' refusing to 'just let go,' declining to let a convenient and orderly succession proceed as would any sensible CEO; rejecting the advanced euthanasia formulas easily available throughout the western world, and refusing the cup that would take him beyond -- into a world without pain, a sleep without dreams, and a death in which the Vatican's silver hammer cannot be felt and the calling out of his name cannot be heard?

Why would anyone, many ask, suffer, when they could simply elect to die? It is a common question of our age and our common answer is, "Of course, no sane person would. After all, the pain... not to mention the expense... and of course the burden on the family... the cost to society, etc, etc."

The different, more difficult answer from the Pope is that his Church does not side with death but always with life; even life made intolerable. It does not side with elected death at the beginning of life nor at the end. The Shepherd of the Church promises this as he assumes the Papacy. He cannot and, it seems to me, does not wish it otherwise. When Karol Wojtyla the man became Pope John Paul II it did not mean that he could or would become Karol Wojtyla the man again when life became difficult. It meant a promise kept beyond death. A promise that would, in word and deed, and in long measure, enact a life in imitation of Christ. One need not be a Catholic or even a Christian to learn from this lesson.

The Passion of the Pope is a living lesson that will teach many things to many millions -- faithful and atheist alike -- in the days to come. Not the least of these will be that the value of life in all conditions and all stages is not something that can be casually discarded, or medicated, or made easy, simply because we can elect to end it.

Ronan Mullen says it well when he writes:

As the Pope approaches the culmination of his suffering, it is easier to see the thematic significance of what was going on all along. John Paul II has been trying to live in imitation of Christ. From the beginning of his papacy, he determined to be a teaching Pope. Yet, to imitate Christ, he knew he must also accept suffering. The case history is as well known to us as that of a well-loved relative. We remember his shooting in 1981 because we saw it on television. We learned of the tumour in his colon, the dislocated shoulder, the broken leg and, finally, the Parkinson's disease. We have seen a person stripped gradually but relentlessly of all those faculties which made him so remarkable to the world's eyes. The man who loved to travel could no longer walk. The actor who loved to gesture could no longer smile. And now the Pope who loved to communicate can no longer speak.

Perhaps not, but I believe that these last days of John Paul will speak volumes, if we have but ears to hear. Not merely about how to die when the fall is all, but how to live when it is always all.

Long ago, when my daughter was young, there was a plaque on a wall at her school that read "This is the day God has made. Rejoice and be glad in it." These days I find I still have not learned that lesson, but I am heartened that there are still among us men who can make us ready to learn anew what we have chosen to forget.

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Posted by Vanderleun at April 2, 2005 12:22 AM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Thanks for a wonderful piece. It seems to me that John Paul II continues to teach us how to live--with courage and compassion and good humor. Some have commented that he seems to cling selfishly, perhpas even fearfully to life, but such sentiments are completely contradicted by the way this man has lived.

No, I think he is doing the best he can to emulate Christ, who commands us to love God, and to love one another. I don't recall any Scriptural dispensation of the great commandment for those who suffer. This great man will show us how to love God and one another to his last breath.

Posted by: Old Dad at March 7, 2005 11:24 AM

Thank you for a wonderful post that I will most definitely quote at my blog Legacy Matters.

You are right when you say that people no longer know how to die. This Pope is giving us his greatest lesson before our eyes about how to live, to reverence life and to value suffering. Suffering can be ennobling to those who bear it well and not just because of the effect it has on those around them. Maybe that's just another aspect of love

Posted by: Jille at March 7, 2005 12:13 PM

Nicely done. I am not a Catholic, but that hardly matters. I find the Pope to be inspiring in every dimension. His slow, dignified passion -- borne with a strength and a humanity that we can only pray ourselves to muster when the time comes, as it will -- is of another time and another place. God bless him.

Posted by: bondra at March 7, 2005 2:16 PM

Thanks, Mr. Van Der Leun.

Posted by: P.A. Breault at March 7, 2005 3:30 PM

A beautiful post. Though I may no longer consider myself Catholic, there is something in the words and deeds of the Pope that resonates so profoundly with me that I recognize there will be always a place in my heart and mind for the Church.

Posted by: J at March 7, 2005 4:03 PM


A moving and powerful post. The power of suffering to transform is largely lost on our vending-machine, quick-fix culture. Death with dignity is not found in a syringe, but in a life lived powerfully for others.

For like-minded thoughts on a different (but related) topic, see The Doctor Is In: Dancing with Death.

Thank you.

Posted by: Dr Bob at March 7, 2005 4:41 PM


God bless you for this post.

Posted by: Connecticut Yankee at March 7, 2005 4:46 PM

I guess I'm going to be the turd in the punchbowl here.

It was a fine encomnium, Gerard, and I know many of my fellow Catholics think as you have expressed it. For myself, I no longer find redemption myself in my suffering or in that of others.

Suffering has much to teach, and may even inspire from time to time, but I know I am not consoled at all by an example of prolonged misery seemingly borne well. (We aren't in his mind after all, and we all plead for relief when in crisis. I expect that he is kept as comfortable as possible.)

I have generally borne chronic pain and misery quite well through the course of my life since I had no choice. You either rise to the occasion and play the man, or become an irritating whiner and complainer. The Pope is a man about it, I think.

But as I get older, I have less tolerance for my own pain and suffering. I don't care to endure it since where does it lead despite our best efforts? To the grave, and I have no great attachment to life that I'm afraid to get there sooner than expected.

When I had my heart attack, I was very pleased to discover that death had no terror for me. (They say that living as a Catholic makes life hard, but it makes dying easy. There's some truth to that.)

Anyway, I'd just as soon now that the transition from this world to the next was not prolonged. If I'm in pain, I hope they dope the heck out of me. I don't want to feel it anymore, and I suppose the Pope pretty much feels the same way.

Posted by: mark butterworth at March 8, 2005 12:05 AM

I don't think I was arguing *against* all measures and against all medications, but rather against the casual assumed nature of these measures, against the automatic response that is more and more the answer given.

As for the Pope I think I was trying to say that his is a special job and a more difficult witness: "The different, more difficult answer from the Pope is that his Church does not side with death but always with life; even life made intolerable. It does not side with elected death at the beginning nor at the end, and that the Shepherd of the Church promises this as he assumes the Papacy. He cannot and, it seems to me clear, does not wish it otherwise."

He is, as my slight understanding of Catholicism allows me to know, the Father of the Entire Church, many parts of which are not located in the First World and many adherents of which cannot avail themselves of our "advanced" medicine.

In the end, I think what I was trying to say is that the lesson is in how to live -- that dying is secondary.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at March 8, 2005 8:37 AM

Gerard, no you weren't arguing opposite me, but I didn't really make my point. What I meant to say was that in this day and age, I don't really think many people, including Catholics, will pay his dying very much mind, and the special sense of piety that others attach to it gets to be a bit fullsome.

I don't think he is that deeply respected as a leader or an example in the Church except to a minority, because, in the West anyway, his kind of leadership doesn't resonate or have the kind of meaning it once did. People see him more as a well meaning fellow who wears funny clothes.

Posted by: mark butterworth at March 8, 2005 3:29 PM

How do you come to those conclusions, mark ?

JP II is and had been a global spiritual figure in multiple languages and cultures and your sense as a catholic is, its costume time ?

What was your point ? That JP II doesn't have one ?

Posted by: ellen at March 8, 2005 8:32 PM

A beautiful piece, to which I'd like to add just one thing. Back in 1978, when Karol Wotyla ascended to Peter's throne, one of the first papal statements to a world gripped by fear of nuclear annihilation in what would be the last decade of the Cold War, he had just one thing to say: "Fear not." Repeating the words of the Angel of the Shepherds to a world wracked by fear, he reminded us then that our hope ... and salvation ... is not to be found in ourselves or of our doing but in Christ and his death on the cross. That's the same message he's conveying to the world today. May he always rest in peace.

Posted by: Logan Anderson at March 9, 2005 8:26 AM


My point is lip service and pro forma expressions of piety. (The funny clothes bit refers to those who aren't Catholic or are secular. You have to admit, though, the clothes are funny looking, aren't they?)

JP2 is indeed a world leader, but so is Kofi Annan. He gets newspaper inches and video minutes, but how many people actually care about what he says or does what he asks? Few. Heck, he can't even get his own spineless bishops to excommunicate pro-abortion politicians and public figures.

Most Catholics are nominal just as most *anythings* are. Think they care if the Pope dies slowly or quickly? With fortitutude or with self-pity?

The world gives as much credibility and coverage to the Dalai Lama, and how many people does he actually represent?

The Pope makes lots of points, but who puts them to practice? I've yet to meet a single Catholic who doesn't pick and choose his doctrines, dogmas, devotions, and policies. It's impossible not to.

If we'd listened to the Pope, Saddam would still be running Iraq.

Posted by: mark butterworth at March 9, 2005 2:16 PM

Excellent, well-written post.

Lots of mistakes in the comments, though! :-)

Posted by: lizzie at March 15, 2005 9:20 PM

I respectfully disagree with Mark Butterworth. His larger point, that the world can and will ignore someone of stature if it dislikes the message, may be correct. However, the world that is disagreeing is a remarkably small one, one that is composed of mostly intellectuals, media persons, politicians and professional scoffers. Most of us are none of these.

Mother Theresa was of the same stock as the Pope, selflessly dedicated to God and doing her utmost to fulfill His will in her life. She was also ignored, for the most part, by the same world described above. And yet, almost everyone noticed and felt diminished by her death, probably in ways that could not be explained.

Many people, including untold numbers of Protestants like myself have noticed and been inspired by the example of the Pope. I believe that Gerard is correct when he asserts that the Pope is trying to shape his life to conform with that of Jesus. He has been not only the Father of the Church, but also the adopted father of the Body of Christ.

Posted by: Chris at March 17, 2005 11:38 AM

Excellent, Gerard...there is nothing I could add.

Posted by: Mumblix Grumph at April 2, 2005 6:24 PM

If Chris was that inspired by the Pope, why is he still a Protestant?

Yeah, ok, that was glib. But still...

Mr. Butterworth's comment about the media coverage is spot on. At least its not "All Terri, All the time" any more.

And the point about Saddam bears some reflection.

Posted by: Eric Blair at April 2, 2005 9:04 PM

Brian Lamb is no longer doing Booknotes and Steven Den Beste has stopped blogging, but you are still at the top of your game.
Keep up the good work.

Posted by: John Ballard at April 3, 2005 3:12 AM

I too find the life of Karol Wojtyła and in particular his time spent as Pope John Paul II inspiring and I haven't the slightest notion of converting to Roman Catholicism. That remark wasn't glib, it was nonsensical.

It's clear from your lovely piece, Gerard, that the Holy Father's death is a source of inspiration as well. Thank you.

Posted by: Kyda Sylvester at April 3, 2005 7:10 AM

What I think Mark Butterworth is missing is that true Christianity has never required large numbers, and has not depended on capturing the vast majority of humanity. The Gospel has *always* been carried by a remnant.

Let's face it: if you were trying to fit "spreading the Gospel" into a Sam-Walton-type marketing-growth plan, "12 Apostles" (1 of them a traitor, all of them non-power-players in their society) is *not* a very auspicious start. Try getting *that* funded by venture capitalists. Or the odds of success backed by bookies in Vegas. Hah.

You preach to the masses knowing that most will *not* listen, and that even smaller numbers will, in the long run, be changed by the message. But you preach anyway, because you must (if you have been called to do so). It has ever been thus. The vast majority of people didn't think squat about Jesus when He was here on earth, either.

So, to point out that the vast, vast majority of the 6+ billion people on this planet, if they think of JPII at all (and most of them won't), will think only of "a well-meaning fellow in funny clothes" is undoubtedly correct. But it still misses the point.

Posted by: des at April 3, 2005 8:22 AM

There's some evidence of PKS (Pauline Kael Syndrome) at work here.

Just to put things into perspective: There are 2 billion Christians in the world, 1 billion of them are Catholic. There are 1.3 billion Moslems, 900,000 million Hindus, 360,000 million buddhists, and 14 million Jews.

Catholic Christians in communion with Rome are the largest religious group in the history of the Planet.

Posted by: ricksamerican at April 4, 2005 6:04 AM

Three opinions I would like to express:

1.There are countless numbers of humble, obscure individual men and women that bear their burdens as well as did Pope John Paul II. Their stories are seldom told but just as heroic nontheless.

2.Being Catholic or even Christian for that matter has little to do with recognizing valor, honor and greatness.

3.Gerald, your post recognized those characteristics and did it with words I only wish I had the power to express. Thanks.

Posted by: paulb at April 6, 2005 11:50 AM


Thanks. Another good reflection. One quibble: "This lesson of the Stoic will not be repeated." It's easy to make the comparison. I don't blame you; it took me a while to figure out --or rather to learn the lesson, partly through the Pope's example-- that Christianity is not Stoicism. A true Stoic would have opened his veins at some point; the Way of the Cross is a different road and has a different destination.


Posted by: Mike Walsh, MM at April 3, 2006 6:26 AM
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