Pedagogy of Suffering: John Paul II’s Victory

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

International aid can’t arrive soon enough for the Central African Republic by Washington Post: “More than 630,000 people in a nation of 4.5 million have fled their homes, and tens of thousands are living in miserable and dangerous conditions at the airport in Bangui, the capital, or in other improvised camps. Just 6,000 African and 2,000 French troops provide what passes for protection and order in a country where the state has collapsed. The U.N. force, which will consist of 10,000 troops and 2,000 police, is not due to deploy until September.”

U.N. Considering Sanctions Over South Sudan Massacre by AP: “The U.N. has said hundreds of civilians were killed in the massacre last week in Bentiu, the capital of oil-producing Unity state. The top U.N. aid official in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, has said ‘piles and piles’ of bodies were left behind. Security Council members watched a video showing bodies lining a street and the interior of a mosque where civilians had sought shelter from rebel forces taking control from government troops amid ethnic tensions in the world’s newest country.”

Sacrament of Fiction: On Becoming a Writer and Not a Priest by Nick Ripatrazone: “I write for many of the same reasons that I wanted to become a priest. I want to bear witness to a sacramental vision. I want to admit my life as a sinner. Rather than judge others, I want to use empathy to sketch their imperfect lives on the page, and find the God that I know resides within them. Similar to the life of a priest, there is a space for silence in my writing life, but also a time of engagement with both reader and place.”

The Leadership Emotions by David Brooks: “Certain faculties that were central to amateur decision making — experience, intuition, affection, moral sentiments, imagination and genuineness — have been shorn down for those traits that we associate with professional tactics and strategy — public opinion analysis, message control, media management and self-conscious positioning.”

Does America need a raise? by Charles Clark: “Catholic social thought and its preferential option for the poor also offers strong support for increasing the minimum wage. The Catholic claim that workers deserve a just wage as a matter of justice, and not as charity, is based on the argument that wages should provide sufficient resources for meeting the material and spiritual needs of workers and their families. It is this teaching that the U.S. Catholic bishops have pointed to in their recent efforts to call on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage.”

The World’s Toughest Job by Amber Lapp: “In a mobile society where family is often far away and friends don’t have enough time to become much more than acquaintances before the next big move, how do parents manage? As Senior documents, parenting expectations and pressure are at an all-time high. And yet community support is at an all-time low. There is no village to raise the child. And parents are struggling with the demands.”

Working with the Vatican against modern slavery by John Kerry: “When we embrace our common humanity and stand up for the dignity of all people, we realize the vision of a world that is more caring and more just — a world free from slavery.”

Joint canonization encourages politicized Catholics to bridge divides by John Gehring and Kim Daniels: “If Catholics who vote differently lower our defenses and learn from each other, we can find common ground when it comes to urgent moral issues like poverty, abortion and immigration. If we speak together as Catholics first, we will offer an important and enriching voice to the American political conversation.”

Francis encountering curial opposition, cardinal says by Joshua McElwee: “”Expressions like ‘What can it be that this little Argentine pretends?’, or the expression of a well-known cardinal who let slip the phrase, ‘We made a mistake,’ can be heard,” Rodríguez said, making an apparent reference to a cardinal who regrets the selection of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as pope.”

The Case for Divorce Reform by William J. Doherty: “Modest, common-sense divorce reform is something all Americans can support.”

Pope John saw off the prophets of gloom by Cardinal Turkson: “Pope John XXIII locates peace in the dignity of every human person and in persons in relationship – where justice governs relationships and people embrace the dignity of every person, there peace begins to reign.”

Sharing the Vision of Saint John XXIII by Randall Rosenberg: “John XXIII significantly broadened the Catholic imaginary, and this broadening is illuminated by the metaphor of friendship. He helped to reframe in significant ways the Church’s relationship to modern economic, political, social, and cultural developments; the way we think about the papacy in more evangelical and less bureaucratic terms (along with a healthy dose of humor); the way we tacitly understand our relationship to other Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc.; the way we think about social justice in global terms; the way, indeed, we think about the church in global terms. At the heart of his deepening of the Catholic imaginary, I suggest, is his loving, yet critical, friendship with the modern world.”

A Catholic push for a higher wage by Richard Trumka and J. Cletus Kiley: “Economic policy making that keeps with the Catholic tradition prioritizes those who struggle the most. The Fair Minimum Wage Act set to be debated by Congress this month is a common-sense proposal that will help working families, expand the middle class and reflect our nation’s best values.”

Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

A Call for National Service by E.J. Dionne: “There are no quick fixes to our sense of disconnection, but there may be a way to restore our sense of what we owe each other across the lines of class, race, background — and, yes, politics and ideology.”

Pope at Mass: We encounter the Living God through His wounds: “To meet the living God we must tenderly kiss the wounds of Jesus in our hungry, poor, sick, imprisoned brothers and sisters. Study, meditation and mortification are not enough to bring us to encounter the living Christ. Like St. Thomas, our life will only be changed when we touch Christ’s wounds present in the poor, sick and needy. This was the lesson drawn by Pope Francis during morning Mass at Casa Santa Marta Wednesday as he marked the Feast of St. Thomas Apostle.”

CCHD brings Gospel to struggling communities by MSW, NCR: John Carr, who stepped down last year after 25 years at the bishops’ conference, where his job included overseeing the campaign, told NCR, “The mission and work of CCHD is more essential than ever in light of the priorities and pastoral leadership of Pope Francis.”  The campaign is “the best example in the U.S. of Pope Francis’ vision of a church ‘of and for the poor,’ ” Carr said. “CCHD puts into action every day Pope Francis’ call for the church to get out of herself and bring our commitment to the poor ‘to the streets.’ Francis says, ‘Getting out in the street runs the risk of an accident, but frankly I prefer a church that has accidents a thousand times to a church that gets sick’ from being turned in on itself.”

Home Economics: The Link Between Work-Life Balance and Income Equality by Stephen Marche, The Atlantic: “When men aren’t part of the discussion about balancing work and life, outdated assumptions about fatherhood are allowed to go unchallenged and, far more important, key realities about the relationship between work and family are elided. The central conflict of domestic life right now is not men versus women, mothers versus fathers. It is family versus money.”

Pope Francis’ Saintly Politics by E.J. Dionne: “By reminding Catholics of which aspects of the past he wants to celebrate, Francis has pointed the way for a more open, less divided church that examines the present and looks to the future with hope, not fear.”

30 killed in school attack in northeast Nigeria: “Islamic militants attacked a boarding school in northeast Nigeria before dawn Saturday, killing 29 students and one teacher. Some of the pupils were burned alive in the latest school attack blamed on a radical terror group, survivors said.”

Saints John Paul II and John XXIII by Fr. James Martin, SJ: “Two things we must remember about the saints: First, they were not perfect. And second, as today’s announcement reminds us, they are not cookie-cutter versions of one another. John Paul II and John XXIII may appeal to different types of Catholics because they were different types of people. And what the church is telling us today is that both types are saints.”

Money Alone Won’t Make Men Better Parents by Marc Tracy, TNR: “Similarly to the Mommy Wars, the Daddy Wars can’t take place just among people who are already daddies.”

Gift of Knowledge Helps to Sanctify the World Around Us by Mark Shea: “Knowledge is about seeking to trace out the grand design of God in the cathedral of creation and redemption — and of our place in it. Through the exercise of knowledge, we discern God’s purpose in our lives and our place in his purposes.”