We were told to meet at the Bronze Door of the Vatican Palace on the morning of Dec. 23 last year. After the security check and a short wait at the foot of a monumental marble stairway, we were led up through the vast courtyard of St. Damasus, down a long gallery decorated with frescos of old maps and finally into the pope’s library. Three of us from the American College at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium were to concelebrate Mass with Pope John Paul II in his private chapel. A few of our seminarians were with us; they were to sing hymns during the liturgy; and one, recently ordained a deacon, would have the honor of reading the Gospel. It seems that after the Second World War, the American College sent some aid to a Polish seminary. So each year, our students and staff enjoy this special privilege.
But then I discovered I had forgotten to bring an alb. Would I be cast out because I lacked the proper wedding garment? No need to worry. The pope’s secretary, a Polish bishop who has served him for many years, kindly returned with a freshly laundered amice and alb for the forgetful American.
We took our places in the little chapel, where an international congregation of about 20 people had gathered. The pope was already there, kneeling at his prie-dieu before the altar. Here in front of us, his head bowed in prayer, was perhaps the most well-known and revered man in the world, certainly the most famous religious leader today. Millions, from Mexico to Manila, have felt blest to see him as he became the most traveled pope in history. His accomplishments during his many years as bishop of Rome are extraordinary: more canonizations than any other pope, a new code of canon law, a universal Catholic catechism, synods, encyclical letters on many topics, hundreds of new bishops and much more. Many feel, with reason, that he was responsible for the fall of the Communist dictatorships. He was the pope who liked to ski and climb mountains, the man on the go who would fly to distant lands, liked to sing with young people, reach out and bless babies and chat in five languages. Even an assassin’s bullets could not stop him.
But the years have done what the bullets could not do. The man before us was clearly frail and infirm. When he stepped up to be vested for Mass, I was afraid he would fall. And when he turned to look at his little congregation, it was with the eyes of an aged and weary man. It was only then that I realized just how sad and irreversible is his condition.
Quite frankly, any pastor whose illness had progressed this far would get a visit from his bishop. He would be thanked for his years of priestly service and told kindly but firmly that he was now emeritus and retired. Any bishop who was so unsure on his feet, whose speech was affected and who had a similar serious disease (the Vatican has never given the disease a name) would be told by the papal nuncio that he was being given a coadjutor bishop to administer the diocese.
But who tells an infirm pope it is time to retireespecially one whose mind is probably as good as ever? After Mass we were ushered back into the library. I returned my borrowed stole and alb and we waited for the pope to join us. He shuffled in and took his seat in an armchair. The official papal photographer shot numerous pictures as each person was presented to the pope and given a rosary. Polish friends in Chicago had taught me a few Polish phrases, and I almost said, How are you? in my less-than-fluent Polish. But instead I merely mentioned, in English, that I was from Chicago. He seemed to brighten a bit. Ah, Chicago, he murmured.
I do not think Pope John Paul II will ever retire. He will become an invalid pope, since his sickness of the muscles and nerves is obviously progressive. But he will not resign. He has shown himself to be a man of strong will and enormous inner energy in the past. And, as a geriatric pope, he may well add still more to his already amazing legacy.
Could it be that in the coming years he will be an example of patience and fortitude for millions of the world’s senior citizens as he faces the inevitable pains, limitations and humiliations of his final years? The Catholic Church has had popes of great genius, extraordinary holiness and genuine charm. Some have been brilliant teachers and administrators. A few have courageously faced enemies, from Attila to Napoleon. Now it may be time for a pope who slowly and laboriously closes the book of his life as the whole world watches.