When he made a brief public appearance on Palm Sunday, Pope John Paul II gazed from a Vatican window onto the enormous crowd of pilgrims below. He gripped his forehead as if in pain, then slammed his hand onto a lectern, in silent but evident frustration.
That was at the start of this most important week on the Christian calendar, a season that this year is unfolding largely without the pope’s participation.
Barely able to speak and in deteriorating health, the pope has delegated all major Easter week sermons to other prelates. It is the first time in his 26-year papacy that he has not led the services.
The pope is using the final chapter of his life as a parable for the world’s 1 billion Roman Catholics. He wants his public suffering to convey the value of human life, even in its decline. Especially during the time Christians recall the crucifixion of Jesus, the church is emphasizing the symbolic parallels between the pope’s ordeal and that of Christ -- an analogy John Paul and his aides have been keen to make.
“Like Christ on the cross, the pope shows us that love can overcome sacrifice,” Cardinal Julian Herranz of Spain said in a recent interview.
“We live in a world where pagan images of consumerism, egoism and overabundance are valued, where the sick and aged are marginalized, a world that wants to sweep aside those with limitations and eliminate the handicapped,” said Herranz, one of two cardinals from Opus Dei, a conservative order that John Paul holds in especially high esteem. “By contrast, the pope shows us that life has dignity until the last moment.”
The Vatican has not issued an official update on the pope’s health since he left the hospital March 13 for the second time in less than five weeks, after undergoing a tracheostomy to place a tube in his windpipe.
But in his four brief public appearances since that day, the 84-year-old pontiff, who also suffers from Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative neurological disorder, has looked gaunt and in distress. The Italian media are full of speculation about new breathing difficulties, headaches and other health problems, and the Italian news agency ANSA reported Thursday that the pope was being nourished partly intravenously.
The Vatican’s decision to eliminate virtually all of the pope’s public duties during Easter week suggests that his health is not improving.
“His convalescence is turning into a slight and continuous worsening,” Orazio Petrosillo, Vatican expert for Il Messaggero newspaper, reported this week.
On Wednesday, his participation in the weekly general audience was canceled, but he did appear at his Vatican apartment window for a minute and silently blessed the faithful before being wheeled away.
The pope also was absent from a Thursday rite recalling Christ’s last supper. During the ceremony, the feet of 12 priests are washed to symbolize Jesus’ humility before his apostles.
Easter week involves at least half a dozen major liturgical celebrations that the pope would normally preside over. They include the Good Friday Via Crucis, a procession marking Jesus’ passage through the 14 Stations of the Cross that begins at a gloriously illuminated Colosseum and concludes on Rome’s Palatine Hill.
This year, each service has been handed over to a senior cardinal. On Sunday, the principal Mass will be officiated by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, an Italian who as secretary of state is, in effect, No. 2 at the Vatican.
Saturday’s nighttime Easter vigil -- when Christians symbolically watch for Christ’s rising from the dead, the event that is the essence of their faith -- will be led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a hard-line conservative who enforces church doctrine.
While the world observes John Paul’s decline, his aides say the church continues to operate more or less normally. No one can deny, however, the sense of dread and heavy expectation for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
“You reach a point of asking, what is the point of this? And I think we’re getting close to that point,” said Franco Pavoncello, a dean at Rome’s John Cabot University. “It gives a feeling of hopeless stasis, of stagnation, that I don’t think is good for the church.”
The precept of salvation through suffering is fundamental to Christian theology. More than two decades ago, when the pope was fit and active, he wrote at length on the “salvific” meaning of suffering.
In a major apostolic letter in 1984, John Paul wrote that suffering was both “truly supernatural and at the same time human” because it was rooted in “the divine mystery of the redemption of the world” and allowed a person to discover “his own humanity, his own dignity, his own mission.”
Italian Cardinal Sergio Sebastiani argued that today’s crippled and ailing pope preaches a “silent sermon” that is just as poignant as when the vital John Paul traveled the world and mesmerized crowds.
“Everything that he has said about suffering through the years, he is now showing it to us as a concrete example,” Sebastiani, who oversees the Vatican’s economic affairs, said in a recent interview.
“It is not important that he cannot speak. One thing is to teach, another is to govern. The teaching continues. The governing will perhaps not be as flamboyant as it once was, when he was young, when he was traveling, when he was scaling mountains. Today, the governing is something different. But the teaching remains.”
One veteran church insider said it was good that the pope had turned Holy Week duties over to others; the strain otherwise might have been too great.
“I’m glad he’s not trying to do it,” said American Cardinal Edmund Casimir Szoka of Michigan. “He was leading such a difficult schedule.”
Szoka, who is also governor of the Vatican city-state, retains his knowledge of the Polish language from his immigrant parents and has become part of the “Polish inner circle” that shares private time with the pope, including intimate Christmas and Easter meals.
“He has tremendous recuperative powers,” Szoka said in an interview. “I’ve seen him all these years, and he is strong.”
But disease and age are gradually sapping the pope’s legendary resilience.
Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, leading Thursday’s Mass, said the pontiff today exemplified a “serene abandonment to God.”
And Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s vicar for the Rome diocese, described John Paul as “frail.” Ruini stood in for the pope in the Palm Sunday celebration, presiding over a lavish blessing of palm fronds and olive branches that marks Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
“The cross of Christ neither depresses nor weakens,” Ruini told thousands of worshipers gathered in a sun-bathed St. Peter’s Square. “On the contrary, from it comes ever new energy, energy that shines forth in the deeds of saints and that has made the history of the church fruitful. Energy that stands out particularly clearly today in the fatigued face of the Holy Father.”