Published November 2, 2005
The Death of a Priest
On Easter Sunday 2005, one of Pope John Paul II’s oldest friends said, in a voice tinged with both gratitude and sadness, “I think they are finally beginning to understand him.” It was an acute observation, and a telling one.
For twenty-six and a half years, ever since he had burst onto the world stage as the first Slavic pope in history and the first non-Italian pontiff in four hundred fifty-five years, “they” — the world and, indeed, many Catholics — had understood John Paul II from the outside: as a dynamic statesman, a media superstar, an implacable foe of communism, a resolute defender of human rights, a compelling public intellectual, a voice for the voiceless; a man of dialogue, reason, and tolerance in a season of religious passions and terrorist violence. All of which he was. But understanding Karol Józef Wojtyla from the outside — through his public roles — never really got you to the core of the man.
Now, the center of Karol Wojtyla’s life — the quality that made him distinctively himself — was coming into clearer focus. John Paul II lived the last nine weeks of his earthly pilgrimage as he had lived the fifty-eight years since his ordination: as a Catholic priest, leading others more deeply into the mystery of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. “Mystery,” in the Pope’s Christian vocabulary, did not mean an intellectual puzzle to be solved; in the realm of the spirit, a mystery is a truth that can only be grasped in its essence by love. The mystery of the crucified God contained within itself, John Paul believed, the truth of the world: the world’s origins, its redemption, its eternal destiny — “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” [John 3.16]. That was the truth on which he had staked his life. That was the truth by which he had bent history in a more humane direction. And that was the truth in which he would die.
It was often said during those nine weeks (and, in fact, for years before) that John Paul II had become an icon of suffering; and that was true, too. This was not suffering borne stoically, however. This was suffering transformed from absurdity into witness and grace by being offered to God in union with Christ. He had gotten his first glimpses into the mystery of redemptive suffering through his father, a widower who had taken him to the Polish Holy Land shrine of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska when he was nine years old, some months after his mother’s death. There, he had watched an enormous throng re-enact the passion and death of Jesus Christ; and there, he had experienced with that throng the astonishing joy of the Lord’s resurrection. Easter, he saw, was always preceded by Good Friday. It was a lesson he never forgot.
His pontificate had reminded more than one observer of a biblical epic — as the French journalist André Frossard had written after John Paul II’s installation Mass, “This is not a pope from Poland; this is a pope from Galilee.” And in the dignity with which he bore his suffering, John Paul taught the 21st century the same lesson St. Paul had tried to teach the people of Corinth in the 1st century: “As we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort, too” [2 Corinthians 1.5]. For centuries, preachers and biblical scholars had tried to unpack the meaning of that mysterious phrase in the Letter to the Colossians, in which the apostle writes, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the Church . . .” [Colossians 1.24]. The debates over the meaning of that text would continue, but through John Paul II, millions around the world caught a glimpse of what it meant to fill up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ, for the good of the Church and the world.
Karol Józef Wojtyla — son of Poland and son of the Catholic Church, a poet who had once written the mystery play Radiation of Fatherhood and who had come to embody paternity for millions — died a very public death over a period spanning the penitential days of Lent and the beginnings of the Easter season. It was his last, great paternal lesson.
The response was beyond anyone’s imagining.
Although Karol Wojtyla had lived a robust life before assuming the papacy — and then did things as pope that had been previously inconceivable, like skiing in the Italian Alps and hiking in the Rocky Mountains outside Denver — he had also known physical suffering from the inside, and early. During the Nazi occupation of Kraków in World War II, he had done months of backbreaking manual labor in a stone quarry. In 1944, while he was a clandestine seminarian surreptitiously studying theology after slogging buckets of lime around a chemical factory, he had been run over by a German truck and left unconscious in a roadside ditch with a concussion and a broken shoulder; his characteristic stoop was a lifelong souvenir of that experience. In 1981, it had taken the better part of four months for him to recover, first from the gunshot wounds that had come within a few millimeters of costing him his life and then from the viral infection he had contracted from a tainted pint of donated blood given him during his emergency surgery. That period aside, however, John Paul set a pace of physical activity during the first fourteen years of his pontificate that often left those around him gasping in the dust.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. The foregoing is excerpted from God’s Choice, by George Weigel. All rights reserved.