Dr. Robert White understood how Pope John Paul II would face death, more than two decades ago. The Cleveland neurosurgeon stood by the pontiff in the intensive care unit after the assassination attempt on the pope's life in 1981.
Tubes were coming out of John Paul's abdomen, and the pain was intense. Even the head of a billion-member church, regularly surrounded by a sizable retinue, felt lonely. They were some of the longest and most difficult nights of the pope's life, said White, a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
Still, the pope's final prayer each night, he told White, was for the care and comfort of those suffering in hospitals throughout the world.
"The bottom line," White said, "was he felt part of all the people in the world who were undergoing operations in intensive care units."
In his final days, John Paul showed the same commitment to endure suffering. He considered it the will of God as long as it was done to protect the dignity of the sick and dying. He used his own pain, following the example of Christ on the cross, to share with compassion the pain of others.
After the church fought aggressively to keep Terri Schiavo alive and John Paul allowed himself to be attached to feeding tubes, there was speculation Vatican officials might attempt to keep the dying pope alive by any technological means available.
In the end, however, the pope followed the strand of Catholic tradition that says death, when it is inevitable, should also be embraced as the will of God.
John Paul had been near death since Thursday, after suffering blood poisoning from a urinary tract infection. But the pontiff, described as fully conscious and extraordinarily serene, declined to be hospitalized.
As the pope clung to life, Bishop ...1
Already a CT subscriber? Log in for full digital access.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 60+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more