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VATICAN LETTER Feb-11-2005 (960 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi

Less is more: For many, pope is still leading, but in a different way

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope John Paul II's 10-day hospitalization for breathing problems has raised new questions about the ability of a pope to govern from a sick bed.

At the same time, it has highlighted Pope John Paul's own recent focus on the special forms of Christian witness offered by the sick and the elderly.

For the 84-year-old pontiff, who suffers from a debilitating neurological disease and arthritis, the hospital stay may have marked another stage in his passage from an activist pope to one who leads primarily through prayer and presence.

The pope raised the issue in an Angelus talk Feb. 6, which an aide had to read for him. The pope said he was spending his time praying continually for the intentions of the church and the world.

"In this way, even here in the hospital, among the other sick people to whom my affectionate thoughts go out, I continue to serve the church and all of humanity," the pope's text said.

Some commentators misinterpreted the remark to mean the pope was asserting that he could still run the church. Rather, he was suggesting that sometimes prayer, not managerial abilities, must take precedence -- even in the papacy.

"The pope doesn't have to be like Schwarzenegger, the governor of California, and give the impression of a superman who governs the church," said French Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, who retired in mid-February as archbishop of Paris.

Cardinal Lustiger said most people see in the pope "a weak, suffering, sick man who continues to be the sign of a compassionate Christ who carries all the suffering in the world."

"If it were like that for 30 years, it might be a little excessive. But the church's government, when it shows it has a man at the head who carries his suffering like we should carry it, with courage and for the good of humanity, it is a great example," Cardinal Lustiger said.

To some, all this sounds like excessive adulation and a failure of the church to confront hard facts.

"Most ends of pontificates have been marked by a type of idolatry ... and with John Paul II the limit has been reached," the French newspaper Le Monde said in a commentary.

"The fiction that this exhausted man is still capable of governing cannot last any longer," it said.

Even inside the Vatican, some have questioned how long the pope, who is expected to grow weaker as his neurological illness progresses, will be able to keep up his teaching role -- through documents, speeches and weekly spiritual talks.

That doesn't bother Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche communities for the disabled, who spoke to Vatican Radio.

"Today the pope, more than any encyclical or other document, is by his very presence a sign of holiness," Vanier said.

"The pope is a man who suffers. He suffers physically, but I think he also suffers terribly in his heart. And yet there is something in him extraordinarily luminous and clear," he said.

For Vanier, the pope's suffering has become an inspirational sign for Christians living in a world of poverty and injustice. In this sense, he said, the pope exemplifies St. Paul's statement, "Strength is made perfect in weakness."

That all this is on the pope's mind is clear from the content of his teachings in recent months and years.

The pontiff returned from the hospital just in time for the World Day of the Sick Feb. 11. In his message for the event, the pope said that precisely in times of sickness, people ask hard questions about ultimate realities, including the meaning of pain, suffering and death.

For the Christian, he said, it is a time to understand that "health" goes beyond physical well-being and includes "total harmony with God, with self and with humanity." That understanding is reached through the mystery of Christ's own passion, death and resurrection, he said.

The pope's Lenten message this year also explored a theme with personal overtones: old age and the role of the elderly in the church and society.

The pope wrote about times when illness, age and physical weakness reduce the person's ability to be self-reliant. But far from being a wasted time of life, growing old, if accepted in the light of faith, can be an opportunity to understand the "mystery of the cross," he said.

Vatican officials say the pope does not always bear his own physical burdens lightly. He is typically impatient to resume work during his hospital stays, and over the last two years he has regretted the need to shorten his meetings, sit on the sidelines at liturgies and hand off his speeches for others to read.

Occasionally this impatience shows, as in Switzerland last year when he slapped the hand of an aide who tried to take his text, after the pontiff struggled to pronounce the first few words.

But increasingly, the pope has pointed to the need for people of his age to "focus on that which is essential, giving importance to those things that the passing of years does not destroy," as he said in his Lenten message.

By doing so, the elderly teach something important to their society, especially the younger generations, he said.

Most Vatican officials seem to accept the fact that Pope John Paul's papacy has entered a stage of shorter meetings, fewer documents, less talking and a reduced number of trips. In terms of spiritual impact, however, they are hoping that less is more.

"Of course, he's less active," said one Vatican source. "But even so, he's communicating a powerful message."


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