For the first time in his 26-year pontificate, Pope John Paul II failed to come to his window Easter Monday, unable to deliver even a silent blessing to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. The day before, he did appear with an Easter Sunday address in hand–but when he opened his mouth, he was unable to speak. A tearful crowd watched as he tried repeatedly, in obvious pain, to deliver his prepared blessing, before slumping back into his chair–banging his fist in clear frustration.
But the pilgrims gathered at St. Peter’s–and millions more watching across the world–received greater spiritual nourishment from his silent Easter witness than they ever could have from the text of his remarks. They know that, far from burdening on the Church, this time when John Paul is physically weakest may well be the greatest of his papacy. Here is why: The principal task of the pope is not the effective management of the Church bureaucracy–it is to serve as an effective witness for Christ in the world. John Paul does this more eloquently today, through his silent suffering, than he ever did with words. It does not really matter if he can use his voice intelligibly–or at all. By carrying on, despite his afflictions, he stands as a living rebuke to our utilitarian culture–and a living witness to the value of every life, especially the elderly and infirm.
In carrying on, John Paul also offers us a precious gift: his suffering. It is hard to see him suffer. But this pope does not ask for relief from his sufferings. To the contrary, a bishop once told me that the pope used to refuse medication precisely because it interfered with his suffering. He has a mystical relationship with his suffering, offering it up for us, and for the whole world–a world that increasingly embraces the culture of death, euthanasia, and the abortion of disabled fetuses, because it mistakenly believes there is no greater moral good than relief from suffering. In bearing his pain, John Paul says to us, in union with the Apostle Paul, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.”
We need his example in this world filled with suffering. We need the lesson he is teaching us: that suffering is not useless; that it can have meaning, and salvific power. As John Paul wrote in his 1984 encyclical On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering, once this meaning and power are discovered, suffering actually becomes “a source of joy” because “faith in sharing the suffering of Christ brings with it the interior certainty that the suffering person…is serving, like Christ, the salvation of his brothers and sisters. Therefore he is carrying out an irreplaceable service.”
It was one thing to hear such words delivered eleven years ago by a vigorous John Paul–the avid outdoorsman who loved to ski and climb mountains. It is quite another to see these words lived by a suffering John Paul, who has been forced by age and infirmity to give up such beloved pursuits–and who now struggles simply to say a Mass or deliver a homily. Today, as he struggles on, John Paul infuses a quarter-century of teaching with new credibility–and new meaning.
In his book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis wrote, “You would like to know how I behave when I am experiencing pain, not just writing books about it….I will tell you; I am a great coward.” Most of us are. So our world needs this struggling pope, who inspires millions of frail and elderly people. We need his example, which affirms the continuing value of every human person who feels isolated by illness and abandoned by a society. And we need to be reminded that we all have responsibilities to the weakest among us–to help them live in dignity, and to value the gift of their presence, whatever their condition, at every stage of their lives.
In that encyclical over a decade ago, the Holy Father said this about the suffering of others: “When the body is gravely ill, totally incapacitated, and the person is almost incapable of living and acting, all the more do interior maturity and spiritual greatness become evident, constituting a touching lesson to those who are healthy and normal.” Today, as his own body grows increasingly incapacitated, and as he becomes less capable of living and acting, it is John Paul’s spiritual greatness that is becoming all the more evident–and he is teaching the world anew.
How blessed we are to have such a teacher in our midst; to receive the precious gift of his suffering; and to be living witnesses to what may one day be considered the greatest days of the greatest papacy in history. John Paul was once asked why he does not retire, and is said to have given this reply: “Because Christ did not come down from the Cross.” The Lord will take him from us when He is ready. ‘Til then, give us this silent pope.
–Marc A. Thiessen is a writer in Washington.