pope fast 2 “I must lead her with suffering...”

Pope John Paul II was taken to a Roman hospital early today suffering a relapse of the flu, fever and congestion that required emergency care at the beginning of February.

The current edition of Newsweek has a surprising article (thanks to reader Mark Kloempken for the tip) on how suffering has transformed the last decade of John Paul II’s pontificate—how personal pain has added weight to his words about the sacred quality of all life and how a good life ought have a good and holy end in such works as Evangelium Vitae. From the Newsweek story:

The face in the window high above St. Peter’s Square is small and distant and, even when viewed through a long lens, almost without expression. The voice quavers, just a few words breathed with excruciating effort, audible over loudspeakers, but only barely comprehensible. Few people can get close enough to Pope John Paul II to try to read the thoughts behind the mask of sickness on a Sunday morning, but some of those who have approached him say they’ve glimpsed the pain of a man with a vital mind, a man who has loved life enormously, trapped now in a body that brings him nothing but suffering. “You can see it in his eyes,” says such a priest. “To be imprisoned like this must cause him tremendous agony.”

And yet—because he is the leader of a billion Roman Catholics; because he is the first pontiff of the satellite and Internet age, reaching out to billions more, and because he is John Paul II, who has ruled the church for more than 26 years—in that public experience of suffering lies enormous power. And he knows it. More than 20 years ago, after recovering from the pistol shot that almost took his life in front of St. Peter’s, John Paul declared that suffering, as such, is one of the most powerful messages in Christianity. “Human suffering evokes compassion,” he wrote in 1984, “it also evokes respect, and in its own way it intimidates.” In 1994, as age and infirmity began to incapacitate John Paul publicly, he told his followers he had heard God and was about to change the way he led the church. “I must lead her with suffering,” he said. “The pope must suffer so that every family and the world should see that there is, I would say, a higher gospel: the gospel of suffering, with which one must prepare the future.”

Now, to the frustration of some reformers in the church who would like to see the 84-year-old pontiff resign, John Paul’s personal Calvary has become his most powerful message. Every tremor in his hands takes on meaning. (Although the Vatican has never officially confirmed the details of John Paul’s principal afflictions, senior clerics admit privately that he has Parkinson’s disease.) The spectacle of his condition crystallizes his ferocious attachment to life—the most central, coherent and consistent teaching of his papacy—whether that life is threatened in the womb by abortion, or in old age by euthanasia.

For the rest of this Newsweek story by Christopher Dickey and Rod Nordland, click here.