Ethics & Public Policy Center

Lessons of a Pontiff’s Twilight

Published in The Washington Post on March 22, 2005



Five days before he left Poland for the conclave that was to elect him pope, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla attended a party celebrating the 20th anniversary of his consecration as a bishop. The Krakow home of his friends Gabriel and Bozena Turowski was decorated with dozens of photographs from a quarter-century of Wojtyla’s hiking, skiing and kayaking with the Turowskis and other lay friends, who still called the cardinal “Wujek” — “Uncle” — the nom de guerre they had given him when he was a young student chaplain in Stalinist-era Poland. Above the photo display was a homemade banner reading “Wujek will remain Wujek” — precisely what Wojtyla had told his friends when he returned to an interrupted 1958 kayaking trip with the news that he’d been named a bishop.

Over a quarter-century later the man the world knows as John Paul II is still being Wujek. During the weeks of his illness, all sorts of seemingly pressing questions have been raised: Would the pope ever consider abdication? What would happen if he were to become gravely incapacitated for a long period of time?

The questions are not without interest. But they miss the more compelling point in this drama. The world is watching a man live out, to the end, one of the convictions that has shaped his life and his impact on history: the conviction that the light of Easter is always preceded by the darkness of Good Friday, not just on the calendar but in the realm of the spirit.

Contemporary Western culture doesn’t have much truck with suffering. We avoid it if possible. We sequester it when it becomes unavoidable: How many of us will die at home? Embracing suffering is a concept alien to us. And yet suffering embraced in obedience to God’s will is at the center of Christianity. The Christ whose passion more than a billion and a half Christians commemorate this week is not portrayed in the Gospels as someone to whom suffering just happened — a prophet with the typical prophet’s run of bad luck. The Christ of the Gospels reaches out and embraces suffering as his destiny, his vocation — and is vindicated in that self-sacrifice on Easter.

That is what John Paul II, not a stubborn old man but a thoroughly committed Christian disciple, has been doing this past month: bearing witness to the truth that suffering embraced in obedience and love can be redemptive.

A few days ago in Rome, when I asked Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze what this phase of the remarkable pontificate of John Paul II meant, the cardinal suggested that, from his hospital bed, the pope was putting some serious questions on the world’s agenda — does suffering mean anything, or is it simply an absurdity? Does the suffering contribute anything to the rest of us? Is there dignity in old age?

In Cardinal Arinze’s mind, the example of John Paul II offered an answer to those questions. Yes, suffering can have meaning. Yes, that suffering can teach the rest of us: It reminds us that

we cannot control our lives, and it elicits a compassion that ennobles us. Moreover, the cardinal suggested, John Paul II, in his weakness and suffering, was a tremendous encouragement to the elderly, the sick, the disabled and the dying, who find strength and hope in his example.

The world has missed a lot of Karol Wojtyla’s story in his 26 years as pope, because the world tries to understand him in political terms, as another power player on the global stage. There’s no doubt that John Paul II has been the most politically influential pope in centuries. But that is not who he is, or what he’s about, at his deepest level. His two recent hospitalizations and his unembarrassed struggle to live out the commitment to service that he made at his election in 1978 should remind everyone that this man is, first and foremost, a Christian pastor who is going to challenge us with the message of the cross — the message of Good Friday and Easter — until the end.

As Hanna Suchocka, the former Polish prime minister, described the pope to me recently, “He is living his via crucis,” his way of the cross. It’s not something the world has watched a pope do for a very long time. We should recognize it for what it is, and be grateful for the example.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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