In September 2003, Pope John Paul II traveled to Slovakia with an agenda to call the Slovakians to bring their Christian heritage into the European Union. Midway through his opening remarks, John Paul slumped down, breathless and unable to finish his speech. Suddenly, a seemingly quiet trip became a storm of media frenzy. This Pope, the spiritual leader of over a billion Catholics, whose enormous personality and wit had won over the hearts of many, notable for his athletic abilities and love for adventure, was now deteriorating on the world stage for all to see. The image of this Pope from his hunched over position, making a feeble, slow, trembling attempt to bless the crowds has forever remained in my mind and heart. The sufferings he endured on a world stage—while maintaining his capacity as a global leader and peacemaker—have become an especially powerful symbol of Christian witness in the modern age.
Karol Wojtyla, the man who became Pope, was no stranger to suffering—of all kinds. The crippling blow of his mother’s death when he was only 8 years old, followed by the death of his father at 19, thrust Karol Wojtyla into the throes of emotional suffering from his earliest years. Between the murderous Nazis and the oppressive communists, most of his young adult life was spent in hiding from brutal and repressive foes. He entered a clandestine seminary in Krakow, and by the age of 25, had already made it into the records of the communist secret police for his resistance. By the time he was elevated to “Vicar of Christ,” Wojtyla was a man who had already been tried by fire, and perhaps the worst was yet to come. John Paul’s pontificate would bring two assassination attempts, several battles with cancer, and the final struggle with Parkinson’s disease that ultimately claimed his life. In the preparations for his canonization, the inevitable questions arose: what was the legacy of this Pontiff? Politics aside and despite all of his achievements or failures, the now-saint will forever remain as a model of the “suffering servant,” whose witness to the human condition during times of great strife resounds as an enduring call for all people of good will to endure suffering with joy.
As a future doctor, this witness has been an essential part of my formation. I was not old enough—or did not pay close enough attention—to remember the young, athletic Pope. I only remember the shell of the young man that endured those trying days leading to his death. Still, the reality of his suffering was forced upon me at a young age. It didn’t make much sense to me. Why would this leader remain in the world’s eye while his body failed him? His speeches were cut short due to fatigue; he said the holy mass from a sitting position. He even lost that most essential quality of a leader, his smile—the expression of his mirth. As papal spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls put it: “The face refused to express what was in the heart.” For a man whose position is often more of a symbol of hope than a force for material change, this loss was perhaps most devastating. The disease first described by James Parkinson had robbed John Paul of all the things that seemed to typify his office and his life.
For a world leader who refuses to resign, the manifestations of Parkinson’s disease can be especially devastating. While he was not officially diagnosed until 2001 and the Vatican did not acknowledge the disease until 2003, spectators had begun to suspect the diagnosis since the late 1990’s. As is commonly the case, the first signs of the pontiff’s disease were the presence of an intermittent resting tremor and rigidity. As the disease progressed, the pope developed bradykinesia (slow movement) and severe fatigue. These were perhaps the most debilitating symptoms to this “globetrotting” Pontiff. During his pontificate, John Paul II visited 129 different countries and traveled approximately 750,000 miles. As traveling the world became an essential part of his mission, the slow deterioration of movement was an especially devastating symptom. Finally, the pope developed a characteristically stooped posture. This seemed to be the most notable feature of the pope in his final years. I still remember his painful efforts to reach up his arm for the papal blessing or to look out into the masses that still gathered for his speeches right up to his final days. The will to lead his people was never absent, even from the dying Pope.
What does the disease that took the life of the late Pope—now Saint—John Paul II tell us about illness and suffering? Clearly, not all people are called to witness so profoundly to the reality of suffering. John Paul II was a rare figure, with a global spotlight on his life. However, his leadership through the degrading disease of Parkinson’s showed us that it is possible to maintain our dignity and even our joy in the face of inhuman conditions. Parkinson’s disease took most of the traits that once made John Paul II unique. It took his athleticism, it took his charm, it took his movement, and it even took his smile. Yet he endured as the spiritual leader of more than a billion Catholics and as an inspiration to the world until his very last labored breath. The papacy of John Paul II will be remembered for many things. As a political force, he played a key role in breaking the Iron Curtain; as a pastor, he helped bridge the gap between a traditional institution and a modernizing world. Yet, as a man, he will be remembered for his fight with a tragic illness that slowly robbed him of so much that had defined his identity to those around the world. John Paul II gave to the world a model for facing adversity. By his example, we have been shown, in concrete fashion, that while disease or hardship might rob us of our humanity, it can never rob us of our dignity. Truly it can be said of John Paul II: “He showed us how to live and he showed us how to die.”
Thomas McHale is a medical student at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska. He has studied in Botswana, lived as a volunteer in the St. Anthony’s Shelter for Renewal in the Bronx, and worked with Catholic Workers at St. Joseph’s House in Manhattan. He hopes to continue accompaniment with the poor and working for social justice during his medical career.