Much has been written and said about the exemplary life of John Paul II. But when people look back years from now, it may be his death they remember best. When he breathed his last on Saturday, the Pope had been a sick man for over a decade. It was a long death and a very public one -- intentionally so. John Paul used his own suffering to send a profound message about the value of human life.
If there was one point he wanted to make through papacy, it was that all life is precious, from the womb to extreme old age. In an era when most people conceal signs of aging and hide their infirmities, he put his own on display, showing through his example that even those afflicted by terrible illness can live worthwhile, meaningful lives.
When he became Pope in 1978, Karol Wojtyla was a fit, athletic 58-year-old who enjoyed skiing, hiking and swimming. Wounds from a 1981 assassination attempt slowed him down, but his real travails began when he was stricken by Parkinson's disease, a progressive neurological disorder that gradually transformed the vigorous Pope into a stumbling, trembling, drooling wreck. His face, once so alive with expression, became an expressionless mask as the disease turned his facial muscles to stone. His chin slumped to his chest. His brisk stride became a painful shuffle. His deep, ringing voice, familiar to millions, declined to a quavering mumble.
And yet he carried on. So determined was he to pursue his moral and spiritual mission that he continued to travel, continued to preach, continued to keep a schedule of work that would have tested even a healthy man. On his last visit to Canada, in 2002, he was visibly pained and exhausted as he addressed mass crowds of Catholic youth, but managed to smile through his frozen mask at their rapturous response. Even in his final days, he struggled to keep contact with his flock. Who will ever forget the sight of the Pope at his Vatican window on Easter Sunday, striving, but failing, to speak out for one last time?
A Vatican official once described the declining John Paul as "a body pulled by a soul," and sometimes the will inside that crippled body seemed almost superhuman. But John Paul's message was quite the opposite. What he was going through, he wanted the world to know, was simply human. It is human to get old, human to get sick, human to suffer. In an age that glorifies youth and fitness, making the old and sick feel pathetic and spent, he taught that there is dignity even in the most aged, most afflicted person. Instead of fighting his decline or trying to rise above it, he lived with it, accepting its toll while persevering with his life's mission. Look at me, he seemed to say. I am old. I am sick. I am dying. And yet I am a man.
What a man. What a message. What a death.