Sunday, April 03, 2005

A Portrait of the Pope as a Dying Man

In LA Times Jack Miles says The pope, suffering from advanced Parkinson's disease, made the choice to die before our eyes.

What have his fellow PD sufferers thought of his way of coping with their common condition? No poll has been taken, but a relative of mine who suffers from the disease wrote me just days ago in dismay that what was done to Terri Schiavo — by which my relative meant a prolongation of death — might be forced upon her. She has placed in her refrigerator a copy of her living will, her do-not-resuscitate statement (now strengthened by a do-not-feed codicil), her list of prescription drugs, her power of attorney, and the like. Paramedics go first to the refrigerator, she explained, "to see if you have any drugs they need to know about." If you put a message on the door and keep your papers inside, you have a fighting chance of having your wishes honored.

Putting your Living Will, DNR, etc on the refrigerator is not something I would have thought of, but it is a good idea.

"And then there is the pope!" her letter added. "He is obviously in the end stage of PD with difficulties in breathing and swallowing, which is all a part of PD. He is either in denial — or he is a control freak — when he could have been a spokesperson for PD. Of all people, he could have brought this ugly disease into the public view! But I guess he believes in suffering and not in science."

The language was candid and harsh. Most of us, seeing the pope, have felt pity and perhaps questioned whether he has been fully in charge of his own person. But my relative understandably felt a grieving and angry sense of an opportunity for leadership lost. Had the pope spoken of his disease often and by name, his candor might have mobilized new scientific resources. In our world, things often work that way. To which I would add that because there is no Christian whose dying is so closely watched as the pope's, there is no Christian better placed to teach again the ancient lesson that earthly life is not to be clung to.

K. J. Lopez blogged You gotta worry when you read that in a LATimes oped. Sure enough, the pope was a "'control freak,'" pathetically clinging to life when he had no hope, Jack Miles tells readers. While I understand the pain of watching a loved one suffer, as he clearly is, Miles misses, I think, some of the specifics of lessons from PJPII's last days. He didn't cling to earthly life. He was living a theology of suffering and he let go when it was time, leaving us all with a humble gift of his example.

Steve Bainbridge blogged Ironically, Miles very nearly stumbled on the truth when he used the words of a relative to also damn the Pope for failing to be a poster boy for Parkinson's Disease.... Indeed, this Pope did believe in the power of suffering. In his epic pastoral letter, Salvifici Doloris, John Paul took as his text words of St. Paul that Jack Miles failed to quote:

Declaring the power of salvific suffering, the Apostle Paul says: "In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.

... These words have as it were the value of a final discovery, which is accompanied by joy. For this reason Saint Paul writes: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake." The joy comes from the discovery of the meaning of suffering, and this discovery, even if it is most personally shared in by Paul of Tarsus who wrote these words, is at the same time valid for others. The Apostle shares his own discovery and rejoices in it because of all those whom it can help—just as it helped him—to understand the salvific meaning of suffering.
I firmly believe that this was what John Paul was trying to teach us in his last days. He did not cling to life, but rather embraced his sufferings as being a necessary part of the way by which John Paul - like all Christians - work out their salvation.

The Pope was teaching us until the very last.

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