How has the pontificate of John Paul II changed in these past years as his health has faltered?
ZENIT asked papal biographer George Weigel if he sees any changes in the aging Holy Father, whose pontificate marked its 26th anniversary on Saturday [October 16, 2004].
How have John Paul II’s physical limitations changed his pontificate?
I think the Pope’s suffering has underscored the evangelical character of his pontificate. Perhaps the wisest single line ever written about John Paul II was penned on the day of his inauguration by the French journalist, Andre Frossard, who told his Paris newspaper, “This isn’t a pope from Poland; this is a pope from Galilee.”
The world is now witnessing this “pope from Galilee” leading the Church, not from a throne, but from the way of the cross, from Calvary. By inviting the Church and the world to walk the “via crucis” with him, Karol Wojtyla continues to preach Jesus Christ to the very end.
In a world that often has difficulty dealing with sickness or suffering, what lessons can we learn from the way in which the Pope is living with his physical limitations?
The Pope is teaching the world that there are no disposable human beings: everyone counts, infinitely, from conception until natural death.
Are the late Christopher Reeve or Michael J. Fox the only people to whom we should look for counsel on embryo-destructive stem-cell research? Why not look at John Paul II, who has not arranged his convictions to accommodate his personal circumstances? Isn’t his witness to the truth as compelling and forceful as the others’?
What is the effect on the Church and the world of the sight of a Pope who moves about in a wheelchair? How does that affect people’s view of the papacy? And of themselves?
One of the oldest titles of popes is “servus servorum Dei,” the servant of the servants of God. The Church and the world are seeing a Pope spend out his life to the very end, in service to the truths on which he’s staked his life. I hope that witness inspires the entire Church to similar acts of self-gift.
The R-word has been discussed in recent years. What would you say to those who say retirement is a viable option for John Paul II?
I’d suggest that they listen to the Pope, who has said on numerous occasions that he will lay down this burden of service when God takes it from him.
With all the initiatives — the Year of the Rosary, the Year of the Eucharist — how has the focus of this pontificate changed?
I don’t think it’s changed — the primary focus is still the New Evangelization as the Church’s answer to the crisis of world civilization in our time — but perhaps we can say that the focus has deepened spiritually.
If the New Evangelization isn’t rooted in prayer, it can’t succeed. The Church takes the Gospel to the world through the life-giving experience of the Eucharist and through the regular rhythms of her prayer.
A corollary: Are we seeing more of the mystic now in John Paul II, versus the geopolitical world-shaker of the early years?
The two dimensions have always been there. The man we see today, leading the Church from Calvary, is the same man who played a pivotal role in the collapse of European communism. The Pope’s leadership has always been deeply shaped by his rich and complex interior life.
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.