VATICAN CITY–Unable to pronounce the words with his lips, Pope John Paul II carried them in his heart yesterday.
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Twenty-five years ago Wednesday, John Paul opened his first official homily as Pope with those words taken from Matthew’s gospel. They are the Apostle Peter’s words, answering Christ’s question, “Who do you say that I am?”
Jesus responds to Peter with the words that Catholics believe lay the foundation for the papal office in the Church: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.”
On October 22, 1978, John Paul began his papal ministry with that confession of faith, so central to his office that the words are inscribed in giant letters inside the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica. Yesterday, addressing the new cardinals he created on Tuesday, he went back to the beginning.
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” he began. “In these twenty-five years of my pontificate, how many times I have repeated those words! I have pronounced them in the principal languages of the world in many parts of the Earth. The Successor of Peter can never forget the dialogue that takes place between the Master and the Apostle: You are the Christ… You are Peter….“
Indeed, John Paul has pronounced those words to the ends of the earth. Those words express the deepest truth of what he is most profoundly is: a Christian disciple. But yesterday, the 83-year-old pope was not able to pronounce them at all.
As was the case last Sunday at Mother Teresa’s beatification, another archbishop read the full text of John Paul’s homily. Weaker than ever before, and needing to conserve his strength to get through the rest of the Mass, John Paul can no longer do what he has done for so long. The voice that resounded on that long ago October day has now been largely silenced by the ravages of age.
And so it was a bittersweet week for this young priest reporting on the historic events in Rome. A spirit of gratitude for 25 years of gifts received dominated the week here, but that spirit was tinged with sadness that the end is coming upon us.
I spent five years reporting from Rome on the Vatican (for the National Catholic Register), and for all that time it was clear that reports of the pope’s impending demise were greatly exaggerated. Defying those waiting (and hoping) for him to die, John Paul buried many of those were thought to be his possible successors.
But now sources close to the papal household indicate that while the pope is mentally alert and in command–as he demonstrated in a series of exceptionally personal addresses this past week–the body is failing rapidly. John Paul can no longer walk, is unable to stand for any length of time, has great difficulty speaking in public, and is often in great pain.
That does not mean that the end in nigh. John Paul appeared in public for several hours every day this past week, and there is a long way to go from his current situation to his death. But if the end is not nigh, all here agree that we have reached the beginning of the end. Hence the bittersweet mood in Rome, matched yesterday by the gray skies and a daylong downpour.
There is, I admit, a certain selfishness at work. I was seven years old when John Paul was elected and have really known no other pope. Like so many other young priests, I owe my vocation in large part to his courageous and joyous witness. No one wants to lose him, because we know that whoever comes after will not be the same. Not for any lack in his successor, but because God only sends men like John Paul every few centuries. Peggy Noonan, a member of the U.S. presidential delegation for the anniversary and former Reagan speechwriter, is working on a book to be called John Paul the Great. No one here questions her title.
“Courage in proclaiming the gospel must never diminish,” John Paul told the cardinals last Saturday. “Indeed, until the last breath it must be our principal duty.”
Until the last breath. The message was not lost on the cardinals. From amongst them will come the successor, and he will be expected to do as John Paul has done, proclaiming the gospel to the end, even when the breath is not sufficient to pronounce the words: You are the Christ…
John Paul may have been the only one who was not bittersweet in Rome this week. Several years ago, he wrote a letter to the elderly in which he said that he was “looking forward to the day of my death.” Christian disciple that he is, he is looking forward to going home to heaven, to be forever with the Lord he has served so ably for so long.
We should not begrudge him his reward.
–Father Raymond J. de Souza, a chaplain at Queen’s University in Ontario is covering the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II, the beatification of Mother Teresa, and associated events from Rome for the National Post and Fox News.