By Sandro F. Piedrahita
Ad maiorem Dei gloriam
“For man, in his suffering,
remains an intangible mystery.”
Salvifici Doloris, Saint John Paul the Great
“Cast me not off in old age,
as my strength fails, forsake
me not...now that I am old and
gray, O God, forsake me not.”
For years, the old man had been tyrannized by his body. The truth is that old age had come upon him like a bulldozer, razing everything in its wake: his capacity to walk, the control of his trembling hands, the power of his once-stentorian voice. But now it was worse, much worse. He was losing even the ability to utter a simple sentence. What could be a greater trial for a man with his special, God-given mission? What personal affliction could render his papacy more useless?
The old man offered his infirmities to Christ, as a means to carry His heavy Cross, and yet he still asked the Lord for healing. “If it is possible," the old man prayed, “let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet your will be done, not mine.” The old man tried to assuage his deep fear by recalling the words said to Saint Paul by Jesus: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” But the old man could not ignore the horror of what was happening. Suddenly he realized that perhaps it would soon no longer be possible for him to communicate with his flock, that it would become impossible even to lead them in prayer.
At first, everyone thought it was a simple case of influenza. The old man was delivering his daily Angelus address from the papal apartment window and found it very difficult to recite the prayers as he felt a sudden sense of suffocating. As the day wore on, it was clear that something was deeply wrong. The old man felt an increasing difficulty breathing and as a result could only communicate in short, slurred sentences. By the next morning, the old man was barely able to speak at all. When his chief of staff, Archbishop Sandri, told the old man he had summoned a doctor and thought perhaps the old man should go to Gemelli Hospital, the old man waved his hand in the air dismissively and said in a halting voice, “It will get better, Leonardo. It always gets better.”
But then the old man suddenly pressed his hands against his chest, gasping for air. He could not understand what was happening. He tried to inhale, but it was nearly impossible. “Please, please,” the old man cried. “Please help me breathe!” When the physician called by Archbishop Sandri examined the old man, he said the old man was suffering from a dangerous throat infection and recommended immediate transfer to the hospital. He advised Archbishop Sandri that the old man’s condition was life-threatening, that he could suffocate to death. Given his deep faith, the old man took it in stride. He did not fear death. What he feared most was that his message to the masses would be silenced.
Before boarding the ambulance, Archbishop Sandri asked him for his blessing. Unable to say anything, the old man blessed the archbishop in silence, using only his shaking hands. The Archbishop looked at the old man intently and said three words: “Be not afraid.”
The old man, many years earlier, had penned an encyclical which he proclaimed to be a meditation on human suffering. He reflected on it as he thought of his own condition while the ambulance made its way to the hospital, as he began what would be his long Via Crucis. In Salvifici Doloris – Redemptive Suffering – the old man had explained that suffering refers to different states of the spirit – pain, sadness, disappointment, discouragement, or, at its worst, despair. He had attempted to address the persistent and nagging question of the meaning of suffering.
At the time he wrote the encyclical, he had not yet experienced suffering in the flesh, other than a would-be assassin’s bullets, but thanks to the Virgin Mary he had spent no more than three weeks at the hospital that time. Yes, he had lost both his parents and had lived in a country occupied first by the Germans and then the Russians, but his own body had remained relatively unscathed. When he wrote Salvifici Doloris, he was a strong and robust man writing about long-lasting suffering, an affliction he had not experienced himself. It was only in his later years that he experienced constant suffering firsthand, when his body was ravaged by Parkinson’s disease. The symptoms emerged slowly, but as his disease progressed, he suffered tremors, rigidity, slowness of movement, and difficulty walking. He also experienced involuntary muscle movements and knew there was no cure. The ailment was not only a source of severe joint pain, but also an affront to his modesty, since the old man habitually drooled in public as a result of the disease.
More than one prelate had advised him to resign the papacy rather than have his multiple infirmities on full display, but the old man had remained steadfast. “I will teach all men and women what the Cross means,” he had responded more than once. “They shall see the suffering of Christ in my own aging body, in their Pope’s public humiliation. Seeing me suffer will make their own sufferings easier. If I collapse, I collapse.” As a result of Parkinson’s disease, the trembling of his hands was so great that he found it difficult to celebrate the Eucharist or to move without a wheelchair. Soon he had difficulties with everyday tasks such as dressing, feeding, and bathing. The realization that he was a burden on others was deeply grating, and he did not like the fact that nuns had to attend to him constantly. Eventually, he let the public see him only when seated, but it was not to hide his infirmity. It was simply because he had no other option.
The old man had written that suffering is something which is wider than sickness, more complex and at the same time still more rooted in humanity itself. As he sat in the back of the ambulance, he realized the prescience of his words. His suffering was not just a reaction to his difficulty breathing, to the pain in his chest. No, his suffering was mostly spiritual, the recognition that if things worsened, he would be unable to lead the Church in such trying times. The twentieth century had been defined by the actions of a few bloodthirsty tyrants – Hitler, Stalin, and Mao – but the new century had come with its own atrocities, its own harvest of death. It came with unrelenting war and the immolations of millions in the womb. Surely there was still much left to do, and that racked the mind of the old man.
Perhaps he would have to resign, even though doing so would be completely inimical to his nature. Faced with challenges, his instinct had always been to plod on, placing his trust in Christ and Mary. Hadn’t he attended a secret seminary in Krakow when he was in his twenties and the Nazis occupied Poland? Hadn’t he faced down international Communism itself, not through the use of armies as Stalin had joked, but through the power of his words? It was moral suffering more than physical suffering which most tormented him as he made his way to Gemelli Hospital in the ambulance. It was the “pain of the soul,” to use the words used in his 1984 encyclical, a pain of a decidedly “spiritual nature.”
When he arrived at the hospital, he was ushered to a room on the tenth floor which was especially reserved for him and asked to undress and put on a hospital gown. That is the first indignity every patient faces, having to put on a gown open at the back, such that the person’s backside cannot always be concealed. There is a certain vulnerability in nakedness, a certain embarrassment and affront to modesty. But the old man did not complain. He had been at Gemelli Hospital before as a result of complications from Parkinson’s, and he knew the routine well. Soon he was subjected to a battery of tests, many of them causing great discomfort.
He was instructed to keep his mouth open for more than an hour as Doctor Renato Buzzonetti probed the old man’s throat with his physician’s lighted instruments. After that, the doctor rubbed a sterile swab over the back of the old man’s throat to get a sample of secretions, then sent the sample to a lab for testing. Then there were the tests of his cardiovascular system and a CAT scan. The old man followed his physician’s instructions to the letter, obeying the doctor blindly without fully understanding the purpose of all the interventions. The doctor prescribed a full course of antibiotics and said that the worst was behind him. But the physician was wrong. Lord, how he was wrong! The worst was not behind him. The worst was right in front of him.
As he was taken on an elevator to the hospital’s fourth story, a woman recognized him. He was sitting on his wheelchair, dressed only in his hospital gown, his head hunched over such that his chin was buried in his chest, with saliva spilling from his mouth.
“Oh my God!” said the woman. “It’s you, the Pope. I knew you were in the hospital but didn’t expect to see you.”
The old man waved one of his trembling hands weakly in the air as a sign of salutation. Then he extended his hand close to the woman’s mouth.
“He wants you to kiss his ring,” said the nun attending to the old man. “It’s the fisherman’s ring he’s wearing.”
“Sure, sure,” said the woman as she pressed her lips against the ring. “Thank you, your Holiness, for such a gift.”
The old man did not respond.
“He’s not doing very well, is he?” the woman asked the nun. “Can he even speak? Can I ask him for his blessing?”
The old man uttered a monosyllabic response. “Come.”
“He’s going to bless you,” said the nun.
With his hand still shaking, the old man made the sign of the cross on the woman’s forehead. He made an effort to say something else, but it was impossible.
“Can I ask you for a favor?” asked the woman. “My daughter is undergoing an operation on the third floor. They have to remove a tumor. Can you please say a prayer for her, even a silent prayer?”
“Name,” gurgled the old man.
The woman did not understand him.
“Name,” he repeated in a monotonous tone.
“What?” asked the woman.
“He wants you to tell him the name of your daughter,” said the nun. “He needs to know her name so he can pray for her.”
“Her name is Georgina,” the woman stated. “She’s only sixteen years old. You don’t know how happy I am knowing that you will pray for her.”
“You too,” mumbled the old man. He paused and then tried to sit up on his wheelchair. “You too. Pray for me.”
“He wants you to say a prayer for him also,” explained the nun at his side.
“I already have. The entire nation is praying for you, your Holiness. The whole world remembers you in their prayers. And I shall certainly pray a Rosary for you tonight. You’ll see. Things will get better.”
“Things – things – always get better,” the old man managed to reply in a whisper. “They always do. I bless you. Pray.”
Within a week, the old man appeared at the window in his room at the hospital. His doctors concluded that he was doing much better and could possibly return to the Vatican soon, even though he was still suffering from a fever. From the hospital window, the old man sent a blessing to the crowds. But try as he might, he could say no more than a few garbled words, so the message which the old man had prepared was delivered by Archbishop Sandri. The old man directed the Argentine archbishop to quote certain passages from Salvifici Doloris to the crowds assembled outside, to teach them how to be strong in the face of adversity. He also asked Archbishop Sandri to quote a brief excerpt from the book of Job, to show that suffering on earth is not a punishment, but rather something that can lead to the greater good and can join the ordinary man in the suffering of Jesus.
Job was a man who had lost everything – his health, his family, his fortune – and yet kept praising God. “His suffering,” the old man had written, “is the suffering of someone who is innocent, and it must be accepted as a mystery which the individual is unable to penetrate completely.” But the Pope did not want to convey the idea that human suffering was meaningless. The message then went on to quote reassuring words from the encyclical: “Looking at Christ and following Him with patient trust, we succeed in understanding that every human form of pain contains in itself a divine promise of salvation and joy.” The old man realized that his own suffering was a powerful message to his people about the importance of the Cross. At the end of the blessing written by the old man, the text ended with his frequent admonition, “Be not afraid!” The old man then made a sign of the Cross and returned to his quarters at the hospital. Meanwhile the adoring masses outside the hospital erupted in cheers and began to pray the Te Deum together.
Three days later, the old man was released from Gemelli. His bouts of asphyxiation were gone, but he still found it difficult to speak. The old man returned to the Vatican in his Mercedes-Benz popemobile, dressed in his white cassock as always, with the pallium about his shoulders, a white zucchetto on his head, the elbow-long cape known as the mozzetta over his arms, and a crucifix hanging from his neck. He regretted having used an ambulance when he first went to the hospital, thinking his condition should not be hidden from the masses. Hadn’t he preached in Saint Peter’s Square, thanking Christ and Mary for the Gospel of suffering? Hadn’t he written Salvifici Doloris, linking human suffering to the crucifixion? Why hide from the masses the mysterious fact that undeserved suffering comes also to the good? The old man had never hidden his suffering before, even accepting the scandal of drooling in public, so he saw no purpose in hiding his tribulations now.
Soon the word that the old man was leaving the hospital spread, and everyone rejoiced. Crowds began to assemble along the streets leading from Gemelli Hospital to Saint Peter’s Square, many people holding rosaries and the yellow-and-white flags of the Vatican. The old man waved at the loving throngs and offered them a blessing with his shaking right hand, all the while remaining silent. At an intersection, the Mercedes-Benz stopped, and an adolescent approached the vehicle, begging the old man to say something to his people. The old man turned to Archbishop Sandri seeking reassurance, unsure if his voice would fail him.
He then looked at the adolescent – the old man had always felt a special love for the youth of the world – and mumbled two simple words, “Totus tuus,” which everyone understood, as it was the old man’s mantra. “I am all yours,” the old man had said constantly throughout his papacy, expressing total devotion to Jesus through Mary. It was Mary who had saved him from the would-be assassin’s bullet in 1981, and the old man was sure it was Mary who had accompanied him on this latest test. She had helped him cope with the ever-worsening depredations of Parkinson’s disease for years and certainly would not abandon him now. In his heart of hearts, the old man had no doubt about it. In Mary he would find comfort for all of his afflictions, those of the body as well as those of the spirit. Hadn’t the Virgin Mary spared him from his greatest fear, the possibility of developing Parkinson’s-related dementia, such a common symptom among elderly victims of the disease? The old man did not want to share the fate of his onetime anti-Communist ally Ronald Reagan, whose Alzheimer’s eventually led him to forget his very name.
Three days after the old man’s arrival at the Vatican, he insisted on delivering the Angelus prayer to the great crowds assembled in the enormous plaza. He knew that they were there for him, to share in his pain and celebrate his return to health, and he did not want to disappoint them. A number of his aides counseled against it, saying he was still not well enough to appear in public, saying his speech difficulties would terrorize the faithful. But the old man had never been one to be silenced, so he appeared at his apartment window overlooking the vast Saint Peter’s Square, now full of pilgrims, and he tried to deliver a simple message.
However, it was not to be. He was only able to utter a few brief words before being forced to leave the rest to Archbishop Sandri, since the old man once again had the sense of suffocating as he tried to speak. And he once again recalled the words of his encyclical on suffering. The old man had written that suffering is not necessarily a punishment, but as in the case of the just man Job, sometimes suffering has the nature of a test. He also remembered the words from Maccabees: that some punishments are designed not to destroy, but to discipline and teach the people. And of course he remembered Jesus Himself, who had announced that the Cross was the only ladder to heaven.
The next week the old man once again tried to deliver the Angelus message from the window of his Vatican apartment. He had read certain newspaper articles speaking of his imminent resignation and would have nothing of it. So he was ushered to the balcony in his wheelchair, a decrepit man whose movements were slow and weak and whose voice was slurred. Once again, he was only able to say a few words and bless the teeming crowds with his trembling hands before Archbishop Sandri intervened, but that was sufficient to him. He was beginning to accept that perhaps he would lose his capacity to preach forever, and he wanted to be an example to his people. No matter what the trial, no matter what the sickness, no matter the extent of the despair, he wanted to remind them now and always: Be not afraid! The old man would not resign, but he would let the Good Lord decide when his papacy would end. “Totus tuus!” he managed to say one last time before disappearing into the darkness of his apartment. “I’m all yours, my Mary!”
Within a few days, the old man suffered through a full-blown crisis. He had been feeling relatively better during the afternoon, but in the early evening he began to violently convulse. “I am dying,” he cried out as he brought both hands to his chest. The pain was inexpressible, and he felt it was impossible to inhale. It was worse than all his previous crises. This time he was sure the Good Lord was calling him to Heaven, but he could barely think, such was his mounting desperation. “Please, please!” he cried out as he made a valiant effort to breathe. “Somebody help me! I need some air!”
Archbishop Sandri immediately called an ambulance, and Cardinal Adrian Jaworski gave the old man the last rites, as he thought the old man was on the door of death. But the old man did not die. The doctors arrived and inserted a breathing tube into his nose. That evening the old man was able to pray the Rosary silently as he lay in his bed at the Gemelli Hospital once again. And he prayed not for himself but for the future of the Church. For the first time, the old man was certain that one way or another, his papacy would end. He prayed that the Church would thereafter find a pastor commensurate with the monumental task at hand. The Church of the twenty-first century faced multiple challenges and would need a shepherd of Christ inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Within two days of his arrival at Gemelli Hospital, the old man went through a tracheotomy. He felt it was the continuation of his Passion, the next step on his ascent to Calvary. His physicians surgically created an opening through his neck into his windpipe to allow air to fill his lungs. After creating the opening in his neck, the surgeons inserted a tube through it to provide an airway and remove secretions from the lungs. After the operation, the old man could no longer breathe through his nose and mouth, but only through the tracheotomy tube. It was a further indignity, evidence that he had become a complete invalid, but he felt no rancor in his heart. He accepted everything as the will of God. He asked Archbishop Sandri to bring him a Bible and a copy of Salvifici Doloris.
When he saw Doctor Buzzonetti, the old man scribbled a note on a sheet of paper with great difficulty.
“You never told me this operation would render me completely mute. Had I known that, I would never have consented.”
“The alternative was a slow and grueling death through suffocation,” responded the physician. “The tracheotomy was a medical necessity.”
Two days after the operation, the old man once again appeared at the window of his room at Gemelli Hospital. His blessing was meant to comfort the faithful in their fears, but it had the opposite effect. It had gotten to the point where the old man was completely unable to speak. He stood at the side of Archbishop Sandri, saying nothing. His followers could not fail to realize that now he was breathing through a hole in his neck and not his nose. It was as if the old man was purposefully putting all his infirmities on display, telling them, “Be not afraid.”
Soon the old man had an idea which intrigued him. Why not film his blessing from the hospital and broadcast it live on three screens at Saint Peter’s Square? He wanted to reward all the faithful who were keeping vigil for him. On the appointed day, the image of the old man at his hospital window was broadcast live in the great Vatican plaza. But the old man was disappointed, as his voice failed him again. He was once again forced to allow Archbishop Sandri to deliver most of the message he had penned for the crowds. Archbishop Sandri for the first time saw the old man express frustration at his condition. “Maybe it is better – better, aagh – for the Lord to take me,” the old man said in a tortured whisper, “as I am unable – unable – to practice my heavy pastoral duties – my duties – and don’t believe I am able to resign.”
At some point, the old man decided to communicate with Archbishop Sandri in writing, as he could not say anything meaningful in his garbled speech. “Surely I am a victim soul,” the old man had written slowly, for it was hard to write with his trembling hands, “and I say that without complaint or grievance. Perhaps as with the great stigmatists of the Catholic Church, I am to suffer to expiate the sins of others. But let me tell you it is a heavy Cross, my friend. Most of the great stigmatists suffer the five wounds of Jesus sporadically. I am crucified by the relentless deterioration of my own body and suffer a daily public martyrdom. And it is getting worse, as I have lost the faculty of speech. But don’t believe I am whining. I believe in brighter days ahead. There are always better days ahead. Totus tuus!”
The old man had been reading Salvifici Doloris and deriving comfort from the encyclical he had written himself. He knew that he had merely been a pencil in the hands of God while he had been writing it, that the Holy Spirit had spoken through him. He realized now more than ever that he also was the recipient of that message, the destinataire as they say in French. He pondered what he had written in the encyclical, given his recent suffering, and saw everything in a new light.
“The world of suffering,” he had written, “possesses as it were its own solidarity. People who suffer become similar to one another through the analogy of their situation.” It was true that first with Parkinson’s disease and now with this new struggle, the old man could better empathize with those who suffer. He could feel a real solidarity, thinking of all those men and women with tubes in their noses whom he had been asked to bless, all those burdened with colostomy bags, all those elderly betrayed by their own bodies in a myriad of ways. In some strange and mysterious way known only to God, the old man’s pain could make him a better pastor.
The encyclical tackled the first question people ask about suffering, the question of why. Why is there suffering in a world created by a God who is good? Why do so many innocents suffer to the point where they collapse? At bottom, the encyclical sought to explain the meaning of suffering at its most fundamental level. The old man had written that no one should interpret all suffering as a punishment: “It is not true that all suffering is a consequence of a fault and has the nature of a punishment.” But then what is its purpose? In Salvifici Doloris, the young pope attempted to answer the question.
First and foremost, stated the encyclical, suffering happens “because it creates the possibility of rebuilding goodness in the subject who suffers.” Reading the encyclical written so long ago gave the old man a measure of solace, as it reinforced something he had believed for years: that sickness and frailty are not a penalty from God – far from it – but rather a manifestation of God’s grace, an invitation to trust God and God alone. That knowledge, thought the old man, should allow him to face his own suffering with courage and conviction. He determined that he would continue to wave to the crowds from the hospital window and bless them at the Angelus hour, even if he could not say a word. There was a holy stubbornness in his nature. Archbishop Sandri would continue to be his voice, and the Holy Spirit would continue to inspire the old man’s words as he guided his flock in this most trying of times.
The old man did not question his suffering, certainly did not question his God, and yet he derived great consolation from reading the words he had written as a younger man. It was as if the strong and robust man he had once been had prepared a missive to the disabled man he would become. “Love,” he had written, “is also the fullest source of the answer to the question of the meaning of suffering. This answer has been given by God to man in the Cross of Jesus Christ.”
The old man well understood what the younger man had written. Although Christ’s Cross and Resurrection do not abolish temporal suffering from human life, they nevertheless throw a new light upon every suffering: the light of salvation. There was a reason why the encyclical was titled Redemptive Suffering. In light of the promise of eternal life, what did a few months of temporal suffering mean, especially when joined with Jesus’ suffering on the Cross? What did a few years of suffering mean? What did an entire lifetime of suffering mean? Absolutely nothing. Christ had conquered the sting of suffering and death through His Crucifixion and Resurrection, promising that every earthly pain would end. “For a small moment have I forsaken thee,” said the Lord in the book of Isaiah, “but with great mercies will I gather thee.”
At some point, a cleaning woman knocked on the door of the old man’s room. At the time he was being visited by Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, a fellow Pole who had known the old man for decades and had even replaced him as Archbishop of Krakow. When the woman entered the room, the old man was surprised that she addressed him in Polish.
“Papiez Jan Pawel,” she said. “What an honor it is to be in your presence. You are truly a giant in Poland’s quest for liberation. Had you not visited Poland in 1979, telling the people not to be afraid of their Communist masters, I am sure Poland would still be behind the Iron Curtain. I was in Poland at the time and well remember being among the three million people who welcomed you to Warsaw.”
The old man made a great effort to sit up on his bed and then muttered almost in a whisper, “I am not a giant.”
“You may not realize it,” replied the Polish woman, “but you are one of the towering figures of the twentieth century.”
“Look at me now,” the old man managed to respond. “Sic transit gloria mundi.”
And then he asked Archbishop Dziwisz for a pen and paper. He began to scribble a few notes in Polish, but the truth was that writing was almost as difficult as speaking. He found it inordinately difficult just to hold the pen in his unsteady hands. He wrote his message laboriously, writing each letter at a time with great care. With the progression of Parkinson’s disease, his handwriting had become smaller and smaller. Then he handed the note to the Archbishop, who promptly read it to the Polish woman.
“I was not responsible for the fall of Communism either in Poland or anywhere else. I was merely an instrument of the Holy Spirit. And I think what led to the liberation of Poland had less to do with my visit than the fact that millions of Poles were praying the Rosary every night to Our Lady of Czestochowa.”
The old man then added a few words in his gravelly voice. “They prayed to our Black Madonna.”
“You’re underestimating yourself,” said the Polish woman. “Without your exhortations to the Polish people, liberty would still be no more than a dream. You told them not to be afraid of tyrants, and they listened to you.”
“The victory came through Mary,” the old man said with great effort.
After eighteen days at the hospital, the old man was allowed to return to the Apostolic Palace according to his wishes. There was not much more the physicians could do for him. He still had a high temperature and had not recovered his ability to speak. And yet the old man felt it was best for him to return to Saint Peter’s Square. He didn’t want to die in the hospital. He wanted to die in a place where he could sense the loving fervor of the faithful masses praying for him with all their might. Even though the doctors had said nothing about his impending death, the old man somehow knew. As he boarded the vehicle that would return him to the Vatican, the old man was sure he was close to the end of his earthly journey. And he was fully prepared for that moment. He did not face death with fear or trepidation, but with a joyful serenity. He viewed death simply as the passage from one room to another room which was infinitely better.
On Easter Sunday, following the noontime Mass, the old man made an appearance at the balcony of his room facing the great plaza. He had prayed hard to be able to say Mass on such a special day, but his continuing inability to speak rendered it impossible. He wrote a brief Apostolic Blessing to be read after the Mass, but given the failure of his voice, it was read by Angelo Cardinal Sordano. The old man – silent witness to his own relentless decline – stood beside the Cardinal, trying not to look defeated. He did nothing to hide his pain from all the faithful, however, since he continued to think that his suffering – his ongoing deterioration – was imparting a message to the world. And yet how much the old man would have wanted to give his people a last goodbye, to say something to lift their spirits! But try as he might, he could not speak. He was a living example of redemptive pain.
The crowd began to weep when they saw the crumbling man unable to even mutter a few words and repeatedly chanted, as if trying to give the old man courage: “Be not afraid! Be not afraid! Be not afraid!”
Humbled by the cheers of all the faithful, the old man waved his hand in the air with difficulty, for he felt a heaviness in all his limbs, and he sent them his blessing with the glimmer of a smile. For some reason, everyone in the crowd knew that the old man would never be seen in public again. Nobody was able to understand his few parting words, as they were impossible to decipher. But the multitudinous crowds applauded nonetheless.
Four days later, the moment came. Suddenly the old man’s whole body was in revolt against him. The monster which had begun as a throat infection had somehow morphed into an infection of the urinary tract. In turn, the urinary tract infection had led to the injury of various organs. His cardiovascular system collapsed. His kidneys were failing. His temperature reached alarming rates. His doctors spoke of multiple organ failure. It was clear to his physicians that the old man had developed septic shock as a result of the infection, and there was very little that could be done about it. At some point, the doctors inserted a feeding tube into the old man, but he declined kidney dialysis, for he thought it would be useless, and he wanted to die at the Vatican close to his people.
By then, thousands of pilgrims were congregated in Saint Peter’s Square day and night in order to pray for him and stand in solidarity with him. “Totus tuus!” they cried out in unison, remembering the old man’s slogan. He wanted to go to the balcony on his wheelchair one last time but did not have the strength even to do that. He couldn’t get up from his bed, and he was shivering uncontrollably. Surely he was in the throes of death, and everyone around him knew it.
On Saturday evening, the Mass for Divine Mercy Sunday was officiated in his room by Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz. The old man, lying on his bed with a thick pillow beneath him, collaborated in a simple manner, by raising his hand to consecrate the holy host at the appropriate time. Shortly thereafter, the Polish Archbishop delivered the last rites to the old man, rubbing holy oil on his forehead, for the Archbishop knew that the old man’s death was certain. Outside his window, the crowds of pilgrims were praying the Rosary and chanting without cease, and that gave a certain comfort to the old man, since it meant he would not enter his final journey alone.
“You would not be alone anywhere,” Archbishop Dziwisz told him after the old man managed to convey his thoughts to him. “People are praying for you in every nook and corner of the planet, in every land and in every continent.”
“And please give me your blessing,” the Archbishop pleaded as he kissed the old man’s hands.
The old man said, “Thank you,” and blessed the Archbishop by putting both hands upon his head and muttering the briefest of prayers.
“Please read the Gospel of John,” the old man whispered, and the priests at his bedside complied.
When they reached a certain line, the old man asked them to repeat it.
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, when you were young you girded yourself and walked wherever you wished; but when you shall be old, you shall stretch forth your hands and another shall gird you.”
The old man then reclined silently on his pillow and shut his eyes. His breaths became weaker and weaker as many came to kiss him on the forehead – Cardinals from various countries, young priests studying in Italy, friends from an entire lifetime. Sister Tobiana, who had attended to him for years, and Francesco, the faithful employee in charge of keeping the old man’s quarters tidy, were also present.
Finally his breath was the most silent of whispers. He opened his eyes starkly and said, “Let me go to the House of the Father.”
And then he breathed no more.
Sandro Francisco Piedrahita is an American Catholic writer of Peruvian and Ecuadorian descent. Before he turned to writing, he practised law for a number of years. He is Jesuit-educated, and many of his stories have to do with the lives of saints, told through a modern lens. His wife Rosa is a schoolteacher, his son Joaquin teaches English in China and his daughter Sofia is a social worker. For many years, he was an agnostic, but he has returned to the faith. Mr. Piedrahita holds a degree in Comparative Literature from Yale College and a law degree from Harvard Law School.
Sandro's other work on Foreshadow:
The Crucifixion of St. Peter (Part 1 of 2; Fiction, August 2022)
The Crucifixion of St. Peter (Part 2 of 2; Fiction, August 2022)
A World for Abimael Jones (Part 1 of 2); Fiction, March 2023)
A World for Abimael Jones (Part 2 of 2); Fiction, March 2023)
A Jew and Her Cross (Part 1 of 2; Fiction, April 2023)
A Jew and Her Cross (Part 2 of 2; Fiction, April 2023)
God Alone Suffices (Fiction, June 2023)