IT WAS hard to watch Pope John Paul II struggle physically the last few years. The image of him attempting in all futility to speak from that balcony window a few days before he died is a difficult one to shake. Literally trapped in an eroding body, he was silently screaming in agony and frustration.
Such a contrast to a vigorous, beaming Karol Wojtyla proclaiming to the world in October, 1978, at his installation: "Be not afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!"
But those are in essence the very words he was silently proclaiming to us as he weakened and died, fully aware that the world was watching him struggle. The message - one of courage and human dignity - is the same one he demonstrated for 26 years all over the world.
Oh, he should resign, some of us said. Just look at him. He's not doing anyone any good in that state.
However, the beauty - and the difficulty - of Christianity is its counter-cultural nature. It takes what society values most and turns it upside down to reveal what most of us would rather not look at or deal with. It is ugly in our limited vision, seeing the weak, the suffering, the dying, but is most precious in the sight of God because it is precisely here that he calls out to each one of us.
Many of us would rather avert our eyes from the disheveled man wrapped in a tattered blanket limping across a downtown Toledo intersection late at night, or from the lonely, wheelchair-bound widow we sometimes see in the window of a house just down the block. It's just too hard to look.
Pope John Paul II easily could have chosen in the last several years of his life to shut himself up inside the Vatican and conduct the business of the Church quietly behind the scenes as he deteriorated, refusing to let us see him. Instead, this most public of popes openly invited us to watch. In a sense, it was a more powerful message than any encyclical he issued or homily he delivered.
Do not be afraid, he was telling us, to look deeply at what is painful to bear, to rejoice in the human dignity you see there. Let your heart be motivated to action by compassion that can only come by noticing the cross your neighbor is bearing and, like Simon aided Christ on the way to Calvary, pick it up and help.
This message is not one that Karol Wojtyla simply theorized about, contemplated, or preached. He lived a life of hardship and persecution that gave him unequaled moral authority in our time to show us what Christ meant. His faith was a truth he shared with us from his own despair. It welled up in his grieved heart as he lost his mother at age 8, labored in a quarry as the Holocaust decimated his country, and witnessed his countrymen groaning under the weight of the Iron Curtain.
Long before he became Pope, he had endured enough hardship to turn any bright-eyed idealist into an embittered pessimist. His faith, however, prevented him from turning inward and bemoaning his own fate. Instead, he left his very self behind - as Christ asks us all to do. He saw the human dignity in the downcast eyes of those around him, and he bent down to help pick them up, figuratively and literally.
He showed us how time and time again, whether it was providing peaceful words of encouragement to help lift the hopes of the Solidarity movement in Poland, reaching out and embracing a young AIDS patient, or looking into the eyes of his would-be assassin with love and mercy instead of hate and condemnation.
We all have value and purpose, particularly those whom society tends to disregard. It is precisely these most forgotten who are able to offer us life's most profound lesson - the truth of human dignity.
One can do no better than reflect on and act upon some of the words from his own writings:
"The sick, the elderly, the handicapped, and the dying teach us that weakness is a creative part of human living, and that suffering can be embraced with no loss of human dignity.
"In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus teaches us to show a generous initiative on behalf of those who are suffering. He reveals His presence in all who are in need and pain, so that every act of helping the suffering is done to Christ Himself. This means suffering, intended to sanctify those who suffer, is also meant to sanctify those who help and comfort them."
Be not afraid.
Craig Wagner is wire editor on The Blade's copy desk.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org