I can’t possibly explain how weird it is to watch a holy man in the process of dying.
When you think of Pope John Paul II, you envision vigor: his athletic youth and heroic anti-communist priesthood, his ability to survive an assassin’s bullet and proclaim his gospel boldly around the globe.
That man is gone. The once-sprightly Vicar of God has fallen prey to the gravity of age. His spine sags like a willow branch; his hands move like a toy soldier’s.
He shuffles in bitty steps, like an old man determined not to use his walker in public. His progress never matches his exertion, and red hats hover around him with the exaggerated solicitude usually reserved for the feeble.
The pope has reached the stage in life where mortality mocks his every move. Take his Wednesday morning ritual of greeting the faithful in a Vatican auditorium.
The hall, named after Pope Paul VI, looks like a celestial bowling alley - utilitarian and spare. Its concrete ceiling, modeled after a Quonset hut, arches over the audience. Lights lurk in ribbed recesses; speakers dangle toward the curious and faithful who sit on wooden seats anchored to the floor.
The room looks more like an abattoir than an abbey. Visitors occupy pens segregated by low metal fences.
One looks in vain for majestic art, despite the hall’s proximity to St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. The pope’s stage features an incomprehensible steel sculpture, perhaps 100 feet across and 20 feet tall. If you squint at it long enough, you can make out what appears to be Jesus struggling to clear a thicket of seaweed before his oxygen runs out. The stained-glass windows are equally baffling: sharp shards of color, reminiscent of a dime store kaleidoscope.
Ambiance dictates behavior. In the gilded, matchless St. Peter’s, people move with anxious reverence, rushing from statue to painting to altar to crypt - reveling in artists’ expressed craving for wisdom and love. A man can speak of God there and evoke images of eternal grandeur.
Not so in Pope Paul Hall. The joint inspires shopping mall exhibitionism. Groups of kids stand and shout: “John Paul Two, We Love You!” Choirs crowd around floor microphones, trying to drown out would-be competitors. Besandaled guys rise from the wings, strumming guitars and singing the latest iterations of Kum-ba-ya. In the back, a band pounds drums, shakes maracas and dances as if Mardi Gras were at hand.
We all fear the humiliations of age. But one feels a stab of horror upon realizing that this pope, who has defended the sacredness of all life, must on a weekly basis endure the indignities of human fawning. As he meditates on the Gospel, dueling clans interrupt with shouting and singing. Years ago, he might have smiled and waved at such outbursts. Now, he falls silent and his chin tumbles into his cupped left hand. He waits and summons his energy only after the din passes away.
Nothing comes easy. He is winded by the mere act of speaking. Each word seems a tiny hillock, another summit to conquer. At times, he pants sonorously through his nose, as if deflating.
Yet if one listens, one hears of a faith undimmed by experience with sin. And he wants everyone to hear. The determined pontiff delivers his message first in Latin, then in French, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish and Italian.
He talks for more than an hour and closes with the Lord’s Prayer and a benediction. Then he rises from his dun-colored throne to greet the stream of congregants, who are permitted to meet him. He stands for nearly an hour, blessing them all amid the flash and crackle of camera lights.
As the last of his visitors filters away, he shuffles out the way he came, in toddler footfalls. One can imagine God’s lifting the frail man toward the light, the sweet voices and the rest that holy men always seek on this Earth but never attain.
Most of us die slowly. Our faculties steal quietly away, one-by-one, until we become children again. As frailty ensnares John Paul II, one senses his determination to hang on, despite promised glory beyond - to complete his unfinished chores and satisfy his unrequited ambitions.
John Paul II may be dying defiantly, but he still is dying. It is palpable and it garbs him in a magnificence that eludes men in full health.
As you see this man on the doorstep of eternity, odd desires flood in. You want to ask questions, find certainty in his faith. You want to keep a vigil. You want to console.
But most of all, you want to send love; you wish him godspeed when at last he journeys to a place he has been before and yearns to see again - where he is one of many and no longer must bear the weight of standing alone.