Millions of people around the world watched as Pope John Paul II struggled with various health problems in the weeks leading up to his death. His suffering was very public, yet he never complained, facing everything he was dealt with dignity.
The pope’s actions were consistent with one of his first messages, which was “Be not afraid,” Bishop Matthew H. Clark, noted during a press conference moments before learning of the pope’s death April 2. The pope has always cherished human life and believed deeply in the dignity of each human person, he said.
“I feel blessed and graced to see the power of his witness, which is thoroughly consistent with the way he’s handled life issues all these years,” Bishop Clark said. “When my time comes, I hope I face it with the grace and peace of heart he’s shown.”
From his days in an underground seminary through his more recent struggles with illness and the diminishments of aging, the pope was no stranger to suffering, according to Msgr. William H. Shannon, professor emeritus of religious studies at Nazareth College in Pittsford. His suffering, was not accidental or meaningless, Msgr. Shannon said. On the contrary, the pope may be likened to the church’s early martyrs, who witnessed to their faith by suffering.
“He is a man raised up by God to show our world that suffering is neither meaningless nor ultimate,” the monsignor said. “When joined to the sufferings of Christ it has redemptive meaning and leads to eternal life in the arms of a loving God.”
The concept of suffering is a mystery that has always been difficult for humans to understand, Msgr. Shannon added. This is especially true in today’s culture of instant gratification and the pleasure principal.
“The difficulty is that people, when they talk about suffering, tend to ask the question, ‘Why must I suffer?’” observed Msgr. Shannon, whose latest book, Here on the Way to There: A Catholic Perspective on Dying and What Follows, was published in January.
Since suffering is a mystery, this is a question that humans can never resolve, he said. We don’t have any ultimate answer to this question, so we must try to learn from suffering instead of questioning it.
“In a world that wants so much to ask the reason for suffering, the pope has given us a way of approaching the question, ‘How should we suffer?’” Msgr. Shannon said.
Through his crucifixion and death on the cross, Christ gave the world an example of how to suffer, and the pope has followed in his footsteps, the monsignor added. Both men accepted and bore the crosses they were given with dignity.
Indeed, the pope lived to the fullest his motto, tottus tuus, which in Latin means “all for you,” Bishop Clark noted during the press conference. Even in his last days, when he was too frail to speak, the pope sat at his apartment window and blessed the crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square, the bishop said.
Pope John Paul II spoke often of a culture of life, and suffering is not contradictory to that idea but can in fact be life-giving, Msgr. Shannon said. Through his own very public example, the pope has shown the world that there is no shame in suffering, he added.
“Throughout his whole life he’s been before the public eye. It makes eminent sense that he should be before the public eye in his suffering,” Msgr. Shannon said.
People throughout the world have developed a great affection for Pope John Paul II, whom they feel they’ve come to know. In the early days of the church there was no formal canonization process, and people were declared saints by popular consent, Msgr. Shannon said. Although the formal canonization process takes years, he thinks the pope is already a saint in the minds of many.
“I think that he probably has already been declared a saint by people. He will probably be known as Pope John Paul the Great,” he said.