The Strength of Weakness: Pope John Paul II’s Death, A Year Later

Last week I prayed at the tomb of Pope John Paul II. He is buried in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica, in the grave where Blessed Pope John XXIII's body lay until it was brought up to the basilica when he was beatified. Recent Popes have asked to be buried not in elaborate tombs but in the rock under the church that guards St. Peter's tomb, with a marble slab on top of their grave. Long lines of pilgrims pass the grave and pray each day. I went early in the morning, before the business of the day that brought the Cardinals to Rome.

April 2 is the first anniversary of Pope John Paul's death. Many parishes in the Archdiocese, along with the Cathedral, are planning special Masses; and I hope that the late Holy Father will be remembered during the Prayers of the Faithful at all Masses the weekend of April 1-2. Pope John Paul loved us in life, and we should pray for him now and count on his continued concern and intercession for us.

The last couple of years of the late Holy Father's life were publicly marked by sufferings which had earlier gone unnoticed, especially physical suffering. Some even suggested he should step down because he was becoming so incapacitated and, for some, he was becoming an embarrassment. We live here largely according to the rhythms of business cycles and financial demands, of legal processes and political campaigns; one must be up and about, acute and accomplished to deserve attention in life. The Church, by contrast and at her essential best, is about life and death and life eternal. In the end, that is all that counts. Since God is the author of life, our job is less to initiate big plans than to cooperate with God in his. Pope John Paul II, who accomplished great things in life, suffered much and submitted everything to the Lord through the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom he dedicated himself entirely (Totus tuus). A man of profound and constant prayer amidst enormous hardships, he lived with a sense of God's loving providence.

At a session for the candidates and catechumens preparing for the Easter Vigil at Holy Name Cathedral, I was asked why Jesus had to suffer a horrible death in order to redeem us. God could have just declared us saved. God, of course, is sovereign. But God sent his Son to become like us in all things but sin. Having taken on our human nature in its fallen condition, Jesus became weak and underwent suffering and death. He shared everything human, including the consequences of sin, in order to conquer sin itself. Christ, for our sake, "became obedient unto death, even unto death on a cross." (Phil 2: 8). Suffering, if it is freely accepted as Jesus accepted it, brings healing and spiritual strength. St. Paul frequently insisted that, when he was weak personally, then he was all the stronger in Christ Jesus.

Those who have eyes of faith saw this clearly in the last days of Pope John Paul II, as he himself saw it clearly in his innumerable visits to the poor, the sick, the suffering during his pilgrimages as Pope. His last journey outside of Italy just months before he died was to Lourdes, which is a shrine frequented by the sick from the entire world. John Paul went to pray there, a sick man among the sick and suffering. Looking back at his life now, we see the pattern of our salvation, the pattern of this Lenten season.

Of course, most of my few days in Rome were not spent praying at Pope John Paul's tomb. When Pope Benedict XVI called us to come for the consistory in which he created 15 new Cardinals on March 24 and 25, he added that he wanted to have a day together on March 23 to pray and discuss about the life of the Church. Any Cardinal was free to bring up any topic for discussion, but the Pope himself brought up three: the reconciliation of traditionalists who are not in full communion with the Church; the place of retired bishops in the episcopal college, where they share fully in the sacrament of Holy Orders but are no longer active in governing the Church; and the relation between the Catholic Church and Islam. The last topic occasioned a very lively discussion, because the Church's relation to Islam differs greatly, depending on local situations. Islam as a religion, however, brings challenges different from those brought by a certain type of Islamic political re-vindication; and it was Islam as religion that was primarily discussed.

This Lent in the Archdiocese is marked by controversy and soul-searching. I pray daily that we will come to Easter strengthened spiritually and with a deeper sense of what the Church's mission is at its heart. That was part of my prayer as I remembered the Archdiocese at Pope John Paul's tomb. I recalled there the conversations I had with him about Chicago and asked him to guide us now. Three days with his successor were a help to me, both spiritually and in understanding the Church's mission today. Whether in Rome or here, you are in my prayers; please keep me in yours.

Francis Cardinal George, OMI


Cardinal Francis George is the Archbishop of Chicago.

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