As conflicting reports about the pope’s health are issued by Italian news agencies and as some reports are denied by Vatican officials, there is something infinitely more valuable to read about John Paul II thanks to this brief meditation by Mark Thiessen, The Blessed Sounds of Silence, published this morning at National Review Online:

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 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.