By Nicholas E. Barreca

Our past Holy Father, John Paul II, always confronted his infirmity and mortality with dignity and determination. Despite threatening bouts with the flu and compromised breathing, he continued to meet the expectations of those he served by appearing at the hospital window prior to his death. After a second respiratory scare, including an emergency tracheotomy, he again faced adversity with resolve.

In spite of years of experience with this gentle and purposeful man, the secular media clamored for his resignation. Within hours, speculation on retirement or forthcoming tragedy filled the airwaves. On numerous occasions, all saw the pope’s quintessential image of sacrifice and rising above suffering, as he slowly climbed his own Hill of Calvary. Despite this experience, even an intellectual Catholic commentator, William F. Buckley, suggested perhaps we should have abstained from praying for the pope’s recovery. He commented, “So what is wrong with praying for his death? For relief from his manifest sufferings?”

What was manifestly wrong was that the man exemplified fortitude and active acceptance of infirmity. His will prevailed over his apparent deterioration, while all evidence pointed to a continued brilliant intellectual capacity. Did we fail to see the value of his suffering and valorous acceptance of inevitable decline? His example proclaimed that human lives are not, nor should they be, disposable.

The Keys of Peter hung on a cross. They unlocked a unique passion of their own. The past pope’s act of holiness, through his daily acceptance of suffering, indignity, and humiliation sustained our own humanity. With the strength of his sacrifice and attendant graces, humanity may have averted unseen disasters and calamities. In spite of being plagued by infirmity, he refused to be defeated, conceivably for more lofty reasons.

Another newspaper columnist, John L. Allen, Jr., said “John Paul II [was] providing precious testimony about the inherent value of human life, from beginning to end … that elderly and infirm people can provide important contributions … [and provide] a remarkable identification between him and that vast crowd of suffering people.” Yes, he certainly identified with the disabled, aged, infirm and dying as he has manifested at his Wednesday audiences and visits to health organizations throughout the world. He was a magnificent icon of shared suffering, courage and dignity.

A hallmark of Pope John Paul’s pontificate was the expression, “Be not afraid.” Each indignity of his disability proclaimed this exhortation. When he drooled, he said, “Be not afraid.” When his face was masked and expressionless, it said, “Be not afraid.” When his head was bent and cramped, it said, “Be not afraid.” When he staggered and stumbled, his acceptance of these indignities said: “Be not afraid.” When his voice quavered and his speech slurred, trailed and faded, he was saying, “Be not afraid.” When others spoke for him, we heard: “Be not afraid, for I am sustained by the grace of God.”

Can we fathom the suffering of this Christ-like vicar? A once charismatic, handsome, athletic, bold, vigorous and energetic pope became bent, frail, tremulous and halting as he climbed the Hill of Calvary. Rather than hiding his disability in the confines of the Vatican, he boldly offered us example after example for publicly embracing and carrying the Cross of Christ.

Nicholas E. Barreca, M.D.
For a father’s birthday
March 1, 2006

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