The world press continues to insist that he’s the “frail and failing Pope.” John Paul II seems to have other ideas about the future.
On December 16, 2001, the Pope made his 300th pastoral visit to a Roman parish. “If today I can say that I feel fully Roman,” the Pope told the overflow congregation at St. Maria Josefa of the Heart of Jesus parish, “it is due, in part, to the visits to the parishes of this extraordinary and beautiful city….Every one of them has been a special occasion for me to give and receive encouragement.” The eighty-one year old pontiff has said that he fully intends to celebrate Mass and meet the people of the remaining 34 Roman parishes he hasn’t yet visited: a vivid demonstration that “Bishop of Rome” is no mere title for him – and shouldn’t be for any pope.
On January 24, the Pope will travel by train to Assisi with world religious leaders for a day of prayer for peace. That meeting should make it unmistakably clear that there is no religious warrant for terrorism; it will also illustrate, again, the unique moral authority that John Paul II retains throughout the world, despite age and pain.
John Paul is scheduled to be in Bulgaria on May 23-25, 2002. It will mark another papal pilgrimage to a predominantly Orthodox country, displaying the Pope’s commitment to ecumenism in a personal way, and underlining in deeds his insistence that Catholicism in historically Orthodox lands is no aggressive force.
Recent papal pilgrimages to Romania, Greece, and Ukraine, the forthcoming visit to Bulgaria, and the Pope’s visits to the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Armenia may have begun to open up the possibility of a pilgrimage to Russia in 2002. In October, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, apostolic administrator for Catholics in European Russia, said he felt certain the Pope would be in Moscow in 2002. Later that month, Cardinal Lubomir Husar, leader of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, told me that he, too, had the impression that John Paul would be able to fulfill his desire to go on pilgrimage to Russia in 2002. Cardinal Husar also mentioned that, on Russian national television, an official of the Putin government had recently said that “Russia must be in the West, and Russia cannot be in the West without the Pope” – a most intriguing suggestion.
No formal planning for a papal visit to Russia is currently underway, but the variables do seem to be changing. If I were a betting man, I’d risk a wager that the world will see John Paul II in Moscow sometime this year, perhaps in late spring or early summer, on a pilgrimage that cannot help but have historic consequences.
Then there is World Youth Day in Toronto, which will be held on July 23-27, 2002. Planners for the Toronto event had evidently been worrying that the Pope’s health would prevent his attending, a fear exacerbated by the relentless (and usually wrongheaded) Roman rumor mill. Meeting with Canadian World Youth Day officials in Rome in late October, the Pope rejected any notion that he would send a legate in his stead to the Toronto event, saying forcefully, “I’m coming.” Period.
2002 could also be the year in which the world and the Church begin to get used to the sight of the Pope in a wheelchair. So what? The Church survived hundreds of years during which the Pope was carried in procession in a kind of papal sedan chair, the sedia gestatoria, atop the shoulders of Italian nobles. The Church can easily survive a Pope in a wheelchair, if things come to that. Indeed, “survive” is the wrong word. The Pope’s courage and good humor in his suffering are yet further examples of his singular capacity to embody the new evangelization and the culture of life, not simply proclaim them.
The year ahead will see a tremendous public debate over whether some (very small) human beings are disposable research material. In 2002, John Paul II’s witness to the indispensability of every human life will be a light pointing a path beyond the brave new world and toward a more human and humane future.
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.