SLD Blog

Thank You, John Paul

Pope John Paul II was head of the Catholic Church from 1978 to 2005.  He was known for his energy and athleticism as he enjoyed jogging, weight training, swimming and hiking. However, after over twenty-five years as pope, two assassination attempts, one of which injured him severely, and a number of cancer scares, John Paul’s physical health declined. In 2001 he was diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

I was often taken aback that his frailty didn’t put a damper on his public ministry.  John Paul was not afraid to demonstrate how to decline in health with dignity.  In his later days he would be seen sitting hunched over while strapped into his seat atop the “pope-mobile”, with his body trembling, unable to wave to adoring pilgrims lining the streets. Despite difficulty speaking more than a few sentences at a time, trouble hearing, and severe osteoarthrosis, he continued to tour the world although rarely walking in public. As the end of his life drew near and he no longer made public appearances, many high-ranking Catholic Church representatives would report every aspect of his desperately declining health to the media.  Septic shock, plummeting blood pressure, circulatory collapse, and flat lining were given in colorful detail.

I found myself strangely drawn to the reports and appreciating the candor and no-holds-barred approach of the Catholic Church’s reporting.  Pope John Paul’s declining health and details of his body shutting down and his earthly life coming to an end was a beautiful lesson in embracing all of life…which includes suffering and death.  I’m not trying to get morbid, but just wanting to point out John Paul was following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

I wonder if more of us faced all the facets of suffering, we might have a greater quality of life? Is it possible we would still have a multi-billion dollar industry of over-the-counter pain killers and our present opioid epidemic if we faced up to pain in life?  I’m not against pain killers, but in this earthly life there will be pain…all kinds of it!   I’m also not going after a theological debate about original sin ushering in the punishment of pain, suffering and death…I’m going in another direction.

Jesus didn’t circumnavigate suffering, he embraced it as part of this life on earth and therefore met every situation in the power of his Heavenly Father.  If we want to be like him we must do the same.  “I want to know Him inside and out. I want to experience the power of His resurrection and join in His suffering, shaped by His death,” (Philippians 3:10, VOICE).

There is amazing ministry to be had when we are willing to face what hurts….in our own life and in the lives of others.

There is also amazing ministry to be had when we are willing to face what hurts….in our own life and in the lives of others. “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish.  Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears.  Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.  Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.” Henri Nouwen

Let’s face suffering in the power of the One who understands pain.  This doesn’t mean we have to “grin and bear it”, but let’s be honest about our frailties and point to One who walks with us through them and let’s do the same for those who suffer around us.


Written by Major Lauren Hodgson, Spiritual Life Development Department