“It is the grace of God which alone gives meaning and continuity to our actions; through grace eternity enters into our lives and transforms us.” – John Paul II.
Two distinct images remain in our minds of Pope John Paul, who died shortly before 9.30pm on Saturday 3rd April. There is the image of vigour and energy which characterised the earlier, larger phase of his pontificate; then there is the image of frailty and incapacitation which he presented to the world as illness and old age steadily overtook him in the latter part of his ministry. In recent years he joked that he had three residences: the Vatican, Castel Gandolfo and the Gemelli Hospital in Rome.
In September 2003, Bishop José Luis Redrado, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, and the only bishop in the history of the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God, gave an interview in which he commented on the example of patient acceptance in illness offered by the then 83 year old John Paul. “He has no complex about appearing frail,” said Bishop Redrado.
The Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers then reflected more generally on the meaning of sickness and suffering in a Christian perspective. His remarks, which may be seen as a description of Pope John Paul’s own stance, deserve substantial quotation:
“If man rebels against sickness,” he said, “it is an evil; if he continues to be rebellious, it is an evil. But if he gradually moves toward acceptance, and adds love to his illness as he has loved the Lord, in the end it is a good thing for the person, because he discovers a new way of seeing things and even conversion. The face of God comes closer, as God was never far away. It is a mystery.
“Sickness is an occasion in a patient's life that is not easy to live through, but if he opens up to a new experience, an experience of faith and love, the patient will discover a much richer, more magnificent reality of God.
“The patient experiences a Good Friday of pain, suffering, but he is not closed in on himself. Rather, like the Lord, he walks toward the resurrection. If man shuts himself up in his Good Friday, suffering without a way "toward" his resurrection, then his suffering is useless. If his suffering is open to hope, moving forward with pain, effort, frailty toward a new reality, then he experiences life and resurrection.
“Sickness is a special time for the patient. The man who rushes around has no time to think. This is the reality for us all, believers and nonbelievers. It is also a special time for the family: The patient knits the family together. And it can also be a moment for the Church through a volunteer, a priest, a doctor or nurse, who brings something more than technical means, a smile. Thus, it awakens that which is asleep.
“If the patient really experiences all this, in these conditions, he can become a professor, a school, a great university, but always with these conditions. There can be rebellion, which is the first human reaction. No one automatically accepts something that is difficult, but man has within himself the ability to integrate difficulty and to mature, to make it useful, for salvation, for personal conversion."
Bishop Redrado went on to reveal that he spoke in part from personal experience:
“I myself went through a great illness,” he said, “and I won't say that it converted me -- I don't know if I am converted -- but I have learned to be more relative about things, though to be more relative does not mean to scorn.
“On the contrary, it helps to see things another way and to realize that one is not so important, so indispensable. It teaches us to see that our life has a limit, and this helps us to struggle so that life is forged in a different way, because if we don't forget death we don't forget life, but if we forget death, we forget to live an experience of life."
In the same year, during a series of reflections on the Psalms, Pope John Paul himself had meditated on the transience and frailty of our life on earth and the inevitable approach of death – a very personal experience for him at that time but also, as he said, “the experience of humanity of all times and all regions of our planet”.
“As a consequence of original sin,” the Pope declared, “man by divine order returns to the dust from which he was taken, as already affirmed in the account of Genesis: "For you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return" (3:19; see 2:7). The Creator, who moulds the human creature in all his beauty and complexity, is also the one who "turns man back to the dust" (see Psalm 89:3). And "dust" in biblical language is also a symbolic expression of death, of the infernal, of sepulchral silence.
“The sense of human limitation is intense in this prayer. Our existence has the frailty of the grass that sprouts at dawn; suddenly it hears the whistle of the sickle that reduces it to a pile of hay. The freshness of life very soon is followed by the aridity of death (see verses 5-6; see Isaiah 40:6-7; Job 14:1-2; Psalm 102:14-16)."
This mournful theme, explored by the author of Psalm 89 (90), “shakes our illusions and our pride,” John Paul went on. “Human life is limited - 'Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong,' the Psalmist affirms. Moreover, the passing of the hours, of the days, and of the months is laced with 'sorrow and toil' (see verse 10) and the years themselves seem like 'a sigh' (see verse 9)."
Without God and the sense of our supernatural destiny, human life easily appears futile and absurd. But as John Paul noted, faith in God gives meaning and purpose to the events – and especially the disappointments and failures - of life:
“The Lord teaches us to ‘count our days’ so that, accepting them with healthy realism, ‘we may gain wisdom of heart’ (verse 12). But the Psalmist requests something more of God: that his grace sustain and gladden our days, yet so fragile and marked by affliction. That he make us taste the flavour of hope, even if the wave of time seems to drag us away. Only the grace of the Lord can give consistency and perpetuity to our daily actions: ‘May the favour of the Lord our God be ours. Prosper the work of our hands! Prosper the work of our hands!’ (verse 17)."
Pope John Paul concluded: “With prayer we ask God that a reflection of eternity penetrate our brief life and our actions. With the presence of divine grace in us, a light will shine on the passing of the days, misery will be turned into glory, that which seems deprived of sense will acquire meaning”.
(The whole transcript of Bishop Redrado’s interview may be found at http://www.catholic.org/featured/headline.php?ID=383 . The full text of the Pope’s meditation may be found at http://www.catholic.org/featured/headline.php?ID=202.)
We close with two “Prayers upon the Death of Pope John Paul II and for the Election of his Successor” prepared by the Department for Christian Life and Worship and the Catholic Communications Service of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales:
Prayer for John Paul II
O God, from whom the just receive an unfailing reward, grant that your servant, John Paul, our Pope, whom you made vicar of Peter and shepherd of your Church, may rejoice for ever in the vision of your glory, for he was a faithful steward here on earth of the mysteries of your forgiveness and grace. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon him.
May he rest in peace. Amen.
May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.
Prayer for the New Pope
God our Father, shepherd and guide, look with love on Pope N., your servant, the pastor of your Church.
May his word and example inspire and guide the Church, and may he, and all those entrusted to his care, come to the joy of everlasting life.
Grant this through Our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.