Posted October 20, 2003
A Pope Whose First Zeal Won’t Quit
Unraveling the Mortal Coil, in Plain Viewby Frank Bruni
Published in New York Times: October 19, 2003
ROME —— Over the course of several hectic, pageant-filled days here last week, cardinals and journalists, pilgrims and politicians cataloged the many distinctions of Pope John Paul II. It was his 25th anniversary at the head of the Roman Catholic Church, and he was saluted as the pope who squared off against Communism, apologized to Jews and zipped around the globe with ecclesiastical éélan.
But whenever John Paul was wheeled into view, his left hand trembling uncontrollably and his head drooping far to one side, another rare aspect of his reign came into stark and sometimes unsettling relief.
To a degree that arguably no other public figure of his stature has done, John Paul, 83, has decided not to hide his physical deterioration from public view, not to shrink from a spotlight that allows all the world to watch him wither, bit by painful bit.
It is a gripping sight, inspiring to some people and uncomfortable for others, and it is the result of an unusual combination of personal motivations, pastoral responsibilities and the special circumstances of his office. It also defies convention and expectation in societies where old age is often venerated but infirmity is usually concealed. Many famous people elect to be remembered as younger and more physically vibrant, and they leave the stage when they can no longer stride briskly across it.
The pope has not, for reasons that only he can know. Catholic leaders say that he feels an obligation to his post and to his flock, and that he feels his perseverance in public carries a message.
"He doesn't mind being seen as frail," said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington. "I think he sees the example that he can give us: that you can never give up."
A pope, unlike politicians or many corporate chieftains, does not have to. Once elected by the College of Cardinals, he serves for life, or until he decides to step down, which popes have seldom done.
The increasing frailty of John Paul's condition has created widespread talk among Catholics about whether he might resign. Several church leaders, including Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium, have suggested that in the future, popes who live unusually long lives should consider doing so.
In an interview published in an Argentinian newspaper late last week, Cardinal Jorge Mejíía, a Vatican official, was quoted as saying he believed that the pope had prepared a letter of resignation to be submitted in the event that he can no longer speak. John Paul already has trouble at times enunciating words.
Other Vatican officials disputed Cardinal Mejíía's assessment and said they doubted that such a letter existed. The pope himself has never given any indication that he would relinquish his post before his death.
But all that chatter reflects the peculiarity of his situation. The pope does not need to have his claim on leadership reaffirmed by voters or a board of directors. There is no real check on his authority, and no one is formally empowered to tell him what to do.
People who study aging and the ways in which it is or isn't accommodated in different professions note that few leaders, outside of monarchs, have that kind of autonomy.
"He's in an occupation for which there are no institutional mechanisms for making decisions about an appropriate time to leave," said Sara Rix, a senior policy adviser with the AARP, the lobbying group for older Americans, in Washington.
Age alone need not be a determining factor: some people are as sharp at 90 as they were at 60. Senior Vatican officials say the pope's mind remains acute.
Ms. Rix noted another difference between the pope and other prominent public figures. As those other people age, they are often curtained off by protective family members with more sway over them than the pope's aides presumably have over him.
President Ronald Reagan, whose struggle with Alzheimer's disease has been almost entirely private, is one example.
President Woodrow Wilson, by contrast, continued to appear in public after a stroke in 1919 forced his wife to do much of his communicating for him. He did not leave office until 1921. But that took place in an era before television cameras were omnipresent, recording public figures' every move.
Those cameras have shown the pope's eyes close and his head loll forward during public ceremonies. They have repeatedly captured John Paul wiping drool from his mouth —— pictures that go far beyond most anything that other famous people have shown the world.
In American politics over the last few years, Senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina, served until his 100th birthday, even though he once fainted on the Senate floor and subsequently resided in a hospital. Former Attorney General Janet Reno held her position and later campaigned for governor in Florida although she was visibly battling Parkinson's disease, which also afflicts the pope.
But none of those figures had the level of public exposure or faced the constant scrutiny that John Paul does.
Then again, none had the same mission. John Paul has said time and again that he is responding to God's will.
"He believes he has a calling," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore.
"When you have a call from the Lord to do something, you try to get it done."
Other Catholic leaders and people who know the pope say he also believes that any suffering he endures has value, providing people with an inspirational image of courage. Experts on aging say John Paul is providing people with something else as well: a reminder and warning of questions that society must confront as medical advances prolong people's lives.
What is the proper way to respect older people and reap the benefits of their perspectives while also making adjustments for their possibly diminished abilities? What belongs in public, and what is better left in private?
"In a sense, he really captures a dilemma," said Harry Moody, a senior researcher at the International Longevity Center in New York, a policy analysis group. "If we do prize and value the contributions and the wisdom of elders, how do we reconcile that with the dignity we want to give them?"
Mr. Moody said the prominence of the pope's stooped, largely immobile figure in the news media was "certainly unprecedented in political terms, in religious terms."
But, he added, "It's not without implications in an aging society."