The 'last encyclicals' of two saintly popes
Pope John Paul II, himself suffering from a debilitating disease, said that the faith shown by those who are sick and suffering is a precious gift.
Despite his advanced age, Pope John XXIII had the boldness and youthfulness of spirit to initiate the Second Vatican Council.
On April 27, Pope Francis will canonize two of his predecessors: "Good" Pope John XXIII and John Paul "the Great."
These charismatic and accomplished men of God produced 22 encyclicals on a wide range of topics (8 for Pope John and 14 for John Paul II). Reflecting on their legacies, what is most striking to us as Little Sisters of the Poor at the service of the elderly are the "last encyclicals" of these two great men of God — for they were composed not of words, but of the lived example of two saints as they journeyed toward the Father's house.
The concept of a lived "last encyclical" originates in the thought of John Paul himself. In a book entitled "Why He Is a Saint," Father Slawomir Oder, postulator for his cause, shares an insight into how John Paul II perceived his own suffering and approaching death: "I have written many encyclicals and many apostolic letters, but I realize that it is only with my suffering that I can best help mankind. Think of the value of pain, suffered and offered with love …"
For John Paul II, suffering was an opportunity for solidarity. At the dawn of his papacy, he reached out to the sick, saying that the church was in great need of their help, their prayers and their sacrifices. As he was released from the hospital after being shot in 1981, he thanked God for saving his life and allowing him to belong "to the community of the sick suffering … who constitute, in a certain sense, a special segment of the church."
John Paul later penned an apostolic letter on the Christian meaning of human suffering, in which he shared this stunning insight: "Suffering is present in the world in order to release love, in order to give birth to works of love towards one's neighbor, in order to transform the whole of human civilization into a 'civilization of love.' "
Isn't this exactly how he ended his own life, as millions of people around the world kept vigil with him through the various forms of modern communication, and thousands stood beneath his window in St. Peter's Square? John Paul, who had always had a special bond with the young, delivered his final message to them from his deathbed: "I have sought you out. Now you have come to me. I thank you." These are the words of a man who was not afraid to share the burden of his suffering with others in a spirit of love and solidarity.
By not hiding his increasing frailty, John Paul II also gave a striking witness of the salvific value of suffering. In 1992, he confided to a friend, "The church needs suffering … What are my sufferings compared with the sufferings of Jesus?" Two years later, he said to another friend, "Do you think I can't see myself, and the shape I'm in, on television?" but he did not shy away from public appearances.
When a cardinal urged John Paul not to strain himself during Holy Week of 2005, he replied, "Jesus did not descend from the cross, why should I?" His final words, "Let me go to the Father's house," manifested his absolute confidence in the merciful love of God. "That is exactly what God intends with death," he had once written, "that at this one sublime hour of our life we allow ourselves to fall into his love without any other security than this love of his." John Paul II's own death was eloquent proof that he walked this walk of faith.
Unlike John Paul II, "Good" Pope John was already an old man when he was elected pope in 1958. Consistent with the humble, simple way he had lived prior to ascending to the papacy, Pope John's favorite title was "servant of the servants of God." Despite his advanced age, he had the boldness and youthfulness of spirit to breathe fresh air into the Church by initiating the Second Vatican Council. Yet a bedtime prayer attributed to Pope John attests to his childlike trust in God, despite the weight of his office: "I've done the best I could in your service this day, Oh Lord. I'm going to bed. It's your church. Take care of it!"
John XXIII had this same spirit of simplicity regarding death. In his journal he wrote, "When we die we shall change our state, that is all. And with faith in God, it is as easy and natural as going to sleep here and waking up there." In 1961, recognizing his increasing infirmity, Pope John penned a prayer that echoes his earlier words: "O Jesus, here I am before you. You are suffering and dying for me, old as I am now and drawing near the end of my service and my life. Hold me closely, and near to your heart, letting mine beat with yours. I love to feel myself bound forever to you with a gold chain, woven of lovely, delicate links ..." Like John Paul II, "Good" Pope John died in his papal apartment surrounded by his closest collaborators.
We see from their words and example how these beloved popes trusted completely in the love of God, resting in his heart and allowing themselves to "fall into his love." If you are laden down with the burdens of old age or illness, or care for someone who is, confide your needs to the intercession of St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II. Surely, they will lead you and those you love to rest confidently in the loving and merciful heart of Christ.
(Sister Constance Carolyn Veit, LSP, is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor in the United States.)
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