The COVID-19 pandemic, which has cost many human lives and greatly worsened the material and psychological well-being of hundreds of millions of people around the world, coincides with the centenary of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II (May 18) and the fifteenth anniversary of his death (April 2). The late pope himself greatly suffered from deteriorating health in the last years of his life. Thus, he seems like the perfect patron for our times, someone through whose intercession we can pray for an end to the public health catastrophe and those most affected by it.
This Monday marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II. In the last years and particularly weeks of his life, he suffered from debilitating illness himself. This makes him the perfect saint to ask for intercession for those who are now ill because of the pandemic.
Karol Wojtyła loved sports. As a youth, he played soccer and hockey on the frozen surface of the Skawa River with his friends. For years, he enjoyed kayaking with university students and loved to ski and hike in the Polish Tatras and, later, the Italian Alps. His time spent in nature was also an opportunity for him to be with God: “The undulating wood slopes down to the rhythm of the mountain streams./To me this rhythm is revealing/You, the Primordial Word,” he writes in his last volume of poetry, his Roman Triptych Meditations.
Yet, in the last years of his life, the formerly athletic pope was anything but agile. In 2001, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. While this did not affect his intellectual faculties – John Paul wrote books and encyclicals throughout his final years – he became increasingly frail. Anyone who was around in the early 2000s remembers the images of him ubiquitous in the media: with his frozen face, hunched over back, slurred speech, and difficulty walking; he was nothing like the cool young priest in sunglasses kayaking with Polish students in photos from the 1950s.
In 2005, things took a turn for the worse. On February 1, 2005, John Paul II was hospitalized at Rome’s Gemelli Hospital due to problems with his larynx. Doctors performed a tracheotomy to help him breathe, but it made the pope, a great orator and former actor, virtually unable to speak.
After his release from Gemelli, it was announced that John Paul II would not preside over the Holy Week celebrations in the Vatican for the first time during his pontificate. On Palm Sunday, pilgrims were overjoyed to see the pope bless the crowd gathered at St. Peter’s Square. Their smiles quickly turned into tears, however, when he waved an olive branch at them but, clearly frustrated, could not speak. Thirteen days later, on the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, Pope John Paul II went to his father’s house. Never had there been such crowds in Rome as those that formed in the days that followed.
John Paul II’s public display of his frailty and dying was extremely countercultural. Today’s Western societies idolize youth and physical beauty; the fact that the Netherlands recently legalized euthanasia for patients with dementia is a clear sign of the times. Many people spend huge amounts of money to look young, while the elderly are often the victims of neglect and loneliness, which Pope Francis has dubbed a “hidden euthanasia.”
Yet John Paul II’s visible weakness and death resonated with the world. Two billion people worldwide watched his funeral on television, nearly a third of the global population at the time. According to a Gallup poll in February 2005, just weeks before the pope’s passing, 78 percent of Americans had a favorable view of him, compared to just 11 percent who did not. This is despite the fact that the United States is a Catholic-minority country with a long history of public mistrust of the Catholic Church.
John Paul II’s critics were also moved by his last weeks and death. A touching account of the last weeks of John Paul II’s life and his passing is Papa Wojtyła: L’addio (“Pope Wojtyła: The Farewell”), which has not been published into English. It was written by Marco Politi, a veteran journalist for the leftist La Repubblicawho was at times critical of the Catholic Church and John Paul II, yet the frailty and passing of the pope moved him greatly.
Politi writes of the global reaction to the pope’s final agony and death:
It did not matter whether or not one believes in God. The transcontinental wave of television information attracted viewers irrespective of their faith, denomination, or concept of life. It was followed by papists and anti-papists; Christians and non-Christians; believers, agnostics, and atheists; mystics and rationalists. All were moved by the exposed person of John Paul II, his existence, and how he expressed what he believed in.
Another Italian critic of John Paul II who was moved by his final cross was the legendary journalist Oriana Fallaci. A self-professed “Christian atheist” who had not been blessed with the grace of faith but defended Christianity as a pillar of Western civilization, Fallaci was harshly critical of Islam, particularly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which she witnessed as an expatriate living in New York. She criticized John Paul II for his friendly ecumenical relations to Muslims.
Herself dying of breast cancer, she wrote in her Oriana Fallaci intervista se stessa (“Oriana Fallaci Interviews Herself;” also not translated into English):
I was greatly moved when in Lourdes [in 2004, less than a year before his death] he was close to losing consciousness and in a weak voice asked for a glass of water. I felt he was dear to me and my brother, and I myself wanted to give him that glass of water.
As Catholics, we are blessed with the gift of the saints whom we can identify with in our struggles. Saints are patrons of specific causes for a reason. For example, Sir Thomas More is the patron saint of lawyers and politicians, because he himself was a statesman who remained faithful to the Church and the Gospels and underwent martyrdom. Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patron saint of the pro-life movement, because the Christianization of the Americas led to the cessation of human sacrifices and other pagan practices hostile to human life in the New World.
Likewise, Pope St. John Paul II, once a vigorous athlete, spent the last years, and especially weeks, of his life weak and ill. Thus, he can be the perfect saint through whose intercession we can pray for an end to the pandemic and for all those who have suffered because of it.
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