When the Religion Newswriters Association asked its members to identify the top religious story of 2005, the reporters had no shortage of options. There was the devastating series of natural disasters that had tested faith around the globe–a tsunami that killed some 200,000 in southeast Asia on the eve of 2005, the hurricanes that decimated America’s Gulf Coast in late August, and the earthquake that left 86,000 Pakistanis and Indians dead in October. There were also the terrorist attacks that had wreaked havoc from Britain to Baghdad, and the insurgent violence that pushed the U.S. military casualty count in Iraq past 2,000. And there was the public battle over the death of Terri Schiavo, which galvanized the Christian pro-life community and sparked ethical debates across America about end-of-life care.
But in the view of the religion reporters polled, none of these stories matched the drama of the one that began during the Christian Holy Week in March, when the world’s most famous spiritual father walked his own road to Calvary before an audience of billions. The death of Pope John Paul II six days after Easter Sunday was the overwhelming choice for story of the year, and 68 percent of the reporters named the pope the year’s top religion newsmaker.
The poll results seemed oddly poignant in a year when questions about the providence of God and the problem of evil became urgently relevant to victims from Louisiana to Sri Lanka. As pope, John Paul had always stood at the center of the world stage, articulating the deepest questions of the human heart and offering his most powerful answers by the way he lived. So it was not surprising that he would continue teaching by example in his final days, and even in his death.
John Paul was contemplative at heart, given to hours of intense and private prayer. But his slow, painful passing was far from hidden. Throughout his 11-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, he had refused to shield his suffering from public view, and he last appeared in public on March 30, just four days before his death.
When we saw him that day, his figure was slumped in the bottom corner of his immense studio window, his face twisted in pain, his mouth gaping open. Stripped of everything that had once defined his public persona–his youth, his health, his charisma and dramatic flair–he fought to form the words, “In nomine Patri . . .” But all that would come was a rasping sound, and he had to pray silently as he raised his right arm to bless his flock for the final time.
In the anguish of that moment and the agony of his last days, the world caught a glimpse of a great soul. John Paul had spent a lifetime testifying to the sanctity of human life and the redemptive value of human suffering. Now he was bearing that witness in his very body. Identifying himself as “a sick man among the sick,” John Paul embraced his suffering and, in doing so, encouraged us to embrace the sick and suffering around the world and in our own homes. He sat before us, broken and frail, and invited us to look upon his weakness with love, to mourn with him the tragedy of death, and to celebrate with him the promise of resurrection. As George Weigel writes in his new book, God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, “It was his last, great paternal lesson. The response was beyond anyone’s imagining.”
That response included the descent of millions of mourners on Rome for the pope’s funeral and an estimated two billion viewers who tuned in at home. The unprecedented outpouring of grief for John Paul confirmed the power of his personal witness, a witness that had begun long before his physical decline. John Paul’s death captivated the world because it was a consummation of the message he had preached throughout his 26-year pontificate: that the dignity of the human person is not dependent on his age or his condition, his attributes or his achievements. It is an everlasting and irrevocable gift from God, one that shines all the more brightly when all else has been stripped away.
Though shrouded in the silence of Parkinson’s, John Paul had still managed to speak to a hurting world about the meaning hidden in suffering, the strength perfected in weakness, and the hope that defies even death. His lessons could not have been more timely. As we look to the new year, may we learn well from the example he left us in 2005. And may John Paul the Great rest in peace.
–Colleen Carroll Campbell is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, and author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.