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Pope St. John Paul II and the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has cost many human lives and greatly worsened the material and psychological well-being of hundreds of millions of people around the world, coincides with the centenary of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II (May 18) and the fifteenth anniversary of his death (April 2). The late pope himself greatly suffered from deteriorating health in the last years of his life. Thus, he seems like the perfect patron for our times, someone through whose intercession we can pray for an end to the public health catastrophe and those most affected by it.

This Monday marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II. In the last years and particularly weeks of his life, he suffered from debilitating illness himself. This makes him the perfect saint to ask for intercession for those who are now ill because of the pandemic.

Karol Wojtyła loved sports. As a youth, he played soccer and hockey on the frozen surface of the Skawa River with his friends. For years, he enjoyed kayaking with university students and loved to ski and hike in the Polish Tatras and, later, the Italian Alps. His time spent in nature was also an opportunity for him to be with God: “The undulating wood slopes down to the rhythm of the mountain streams./To me this rhythm is revealing/You, the Primordial Word,” he writes in his last volume of poetry, his Roman Triptych Meditations.

Yet, in the last years of his life, the formerly athletic pope was anything but agile. In 2001, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. While this did not affect his intellectual faculties – John Paul wrote books and encyclicals throughout his final years – he became increasingly frail. Anyone who was around in the early 2000s remembers the images of him ubiquitous in the media: with his frozen face, hunched over back, slurred speech, and difficulty walking; he was nothing like the cool young priest in sunglasses kayaking with Polish students in photos from the 1950s.

In 2005, things took a turn for the worse. On February 1, 2005, John Paul II was hospitalized at Rome’s Gemelli Hospital due to problems with his larynx. Doctors performed a tracheotomy to help him breathe, but it made the pope, a great orator and former actor, virtually unable to speak.

After his release from Gemelli, it was announced that John Paul II would not preside over the Holy Week celebrations in the Vatican for the first time during his pontificate. On Palm Sunday, pilgrims were overjoyed to see the pope bless the crowd gathered at St. Peter’s Square. Their smiles quickly turned into tears, however, when he waved an olive branch at them but, clearly frustrated, could not speak. Thirteen days later, on the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, Pope John Paul II went to his father’s house. Never had there been such crowds in Rome as those that formed in the days that followed.

John Paul II’s public display of his frailty and dying was extremely countercultural. Today’s Western societies idolize youth and physical beauty; the fact that the Netherlands recently legalized euthanasia for patients with dementia is a clear sign of the times. Many people spend huge amounts of money to look young, while the elderly are often the victims of neglect and loneliness, which Pope Francis has dubbed a “hidden euthanasia.”

Read more at Catholic World Report

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