William F. Buckley speaks for many, I think, in this essay wondering why, if the Pope was so near death recently, he was not simply allowed to die.
That sounds colder than Buckley is meaning, of course. He relates a nice anecdote about John Paul II and then wonders about it, that’s all.
I remember him as he was leaving Havana to return to Rome. Fidel Castro was there to recite the diplomatic amenities. The pope was standing on the gangway of his airplane and suddenly rain fell. As John Paul spoke under an improvised parasol, his three-minute farewell address evolved, in near-perfect Spanish, into a homily on water’s purifying mission. All of Cuba watched on television, no doubt hoping, for an exhilarating moment, that Castro would melt away, Cuba shriven from the antipodal reign of a tyrant who came to power even before the pope did, and will outlast him.
Unless it were to happen that Castro died tomorrow, and the pope a week later; but we must see through the blur of the rain to realities of the day, which are that the pope almost died the day that he was taken to the hospital. “We got him by a breath,” one medico leaked the news, and another said, “If he had come in 10 minutes later, he would have been gone.”
The temptation is, always, to pray for the continuation of the life of anyone who wants to keep on living. The pope is one of these. In the past, he recorded that he did not plan ever to abdicate, that he would die on the papal throne. It is presumptuous, in thinking about John Paul, to suppose that in arriving at that decision he was motivated by vainglory. What exactly he had in mind we do not know, but can reasonably assume that he was asserting pride in physical fortitude, consistent with his days as a mountain climber and a skier. Perhaps there is an element of vanity there. Not many sovereigns leave the throne, except at the hands of embalmers.
There is the further question, distinctive to the throne of St. Peter. To leave it before death can be construed as forsaking a mission charged by God almighty. That isn’t the consensus of theologians.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state, said simply, “If there is a man who loves the Church more than anybody else, who is guided by the Holy Spirit … that’s him. We must have great faith in the pope. He knows what to do.”
What to do includes clinging to the papacy as a full-time cripple, if medicine, which arrested death by only 10 minutes, can arrest death again for weeks and even months. But the progressive deterioration in the pope’s health over the last several years confirms that there are yet things medical science can’t do, and these include giving the pope the physical strength to coordinate and to use his voice intelligibly.
So, what is wrong with praying for his death? For relief from his manifest sufferings? And for the opportunity to pay honor to his legacy by turning to the responsibility of electing a successor to get on with John Paul’s work? Muriel Spark commented in “Memento Mori”: “When a noble life has prepared old age, it is not decline that it reveals, but the first days of immortality.”
All Buckley leaves out is this: Many of us wish JPII to, after a lifetime of faithful service and hard work, finally take his rest…but we’re torn. We also want him to keep living. We have no idea who’s coming after him…and the Peter we know is better than the Peter we don’t know.