Potential EntitiesPope Francis
List of pastoral visits of Pope John Paul II outside Italy
PhotoCredit Max Rossi/Reuters, left; Christophe Simon, via Agence France-Presse To understand just how surprising Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to surrender his post is, you can look to numbers. It has been nearly six centuries since a pope resigned. Or you can just flash back to the final years of Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, whose different approach to his physical decline casts Benedict’s course in an interesting and possibly noble light. John Paul, too, aged rapidly before our eyes. He, too, had nowhere near the energy for his job that he had once possessed. But he pressed on, a stooped, unsteady, crippled figure barely able to get through some of the Masses he celebrated. It was a spectacle so unsettling in instances—he was so severely compromised, and seemed so pained—that it verged on ghoulish. I know because I watched it up close. From mid-2002 to mid-2004, I covered the Vatican for The Times and traveled wherever the pope did. There were a small number of us reporters in Rome who tried as best possible never to let John Paul too far out of our sights, and for one reason above all others: we were on a death watch. There’s no more delicate way to put it. At regal church services in Slovakia and Croatia and his native Poland, he struggled to keep his head fully upright. He struggled to get his words out: to enunciate them with enough crispness and force that they were truly comprehensible. He kept a napkin or towel handy to wipe drool from the corner of his mouth; toward the end, an aide sometimes swooped in to do it for him. The pope had a trapped expression. A haunted look. There was a tradition of summoning any new Vatican reporter up to the front of the plane in which John Paul, his entourage and members of the news media traveled, so that the reporter could meet the pope and pose for a picture with him. My turn came in August 2002, as he headed back to Italy from Poland. This was more than two and a half years before he died, and when his assistants plopped me down in the empty first-class seat next to his, what I encountered was a man who didn’t even have the strength to pivot in my direction. Not by so much as an inch. Who couldn’t—or didn’t—say a single word in response to my greeting. He wheezed audibly and was utterly still. A Vatican photographer snapped two pictures, and off I went. None of us could figure out how John Paul got through those Masses in those final years. There were rumors, theories. Some people believed that there was a special intervention—a bit of medical magic—performed on him before each public appearance, to perk him up just long enough to get by. Some believed that he was drawing strength directly from God, and that we were witnessing a version of a miracle. To observe him was to feel a storm of emotions. There was awe, certainly, in the face of the heroic effort he was making. There was pity, at the agony he seemed to be enduring. And there was frustration: was what he was going through really necessary? Couldn’t he just cede the reins? And wouldn’t that be the course both kindest to him and best for the church? Vatican insiders told me then that he felt that he was doing nothing more or less than his duty: that God would call him when the time was right; that his suffering in the meantime was meant to be; and that he believed he was presenting the world an invaluable portrait of perseverance and of faith. He was indeed an inspiration to many. But over the long years of his failing health, part of it attributable to Parkinson’s Disease, the Roman Catholic Church—the world’s largest Christian denomination, with a sometimes powerful voice in world affairs—didn’t have a leader operating at or even near full capacity. And we’ll never fully know what the price of that was. Under John Paul’s reign the child sexual abuse crisis festered and exploded, with Rome reacting to it in a sluggish, disbelieving and self-protective manner. That hesitation cost many children their innocence and many parishioners their trust. It badly stained the church’s reputation, getting in the way of its many good works. And in that context, Pope Benedict XVI’s assessment, as he explains it, that he is no longer physically strong enough to give the church the attention it needs and deserves is an act of laudable generosity and striking humility. It’s mature and it’s just. I’m taking Benedict at his word, and I’m leaving aside the question of his legacy. Over coming days and weeks, we’ll read and hear a great deal about the eight years of his papacy and about his service in the Vatican before it, as the head of powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he was known as a strict enforcer of discipline and fealty and tradition. He got the nickname God’s Rottweiler, and he resisted modernization in ways that surely pushed many Catholics ever farther away from a church hierarchy that doesn’t speak to the reality of the world now and to their lives in it. But for today let’s applaud what looks, from what we know, like a recognition that earthly realities do and must have a say in the decisions we make, that these vessels of ours can be pushed only so far, and that sometimes the greatest service we can perform for an institution we cherish is to step aside and let someone with more vigor and verve steer it into the future.
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