VATICAN CITY – With final preparations for his funeral under way early today, Pope John Paul II’s voice echoed here once more in the words of his last will and testament, in which he seems to long for a release from the burdens of his age and office.
In the 15-page document, a series of notes he wrote in Polish from 1979 to 2000, the pope offers a rare glimpse at his inner struggles, including an enigmatic passage widely interpreted to mean that he considered resigning five years ago.
“It was granted to me to live during the difficult century that is passing, and now, in the year during which my age reaches 80 years … it is necessary for me to ask if it is not the time to repeat the words of the biblical Simeon, ‘Nunc dimittis,’ ” John Paul wrote in 2000, referring to a passage in the Gospel of St. Luke in which a man named Simeon, having seen Jesus as a boy, tells God he is prepared to die.
A few lines later, referring to “Divine Providence,” he wrote, “I hope that He will help me to recognize the time until I must continue this service, to which he called me on the day of Oct. 16, 1978. I ask (Him) to call me when He wants.”
Most media accounts interpreted the passage as suggesting that the pope was considering resignation, but at least one biblical scholar disagreed and said he thought the pontiff was referring to his mortality.
” ‘Nunc dimittis’ is certainly referring to death,” said the Rev. Donald Senior, president of Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
Senior said he could understand why some might construe the language as a reference to resigning but added that Gospel citation and the reference to God “calling” the pope suggest that it was death on the pontiff’s mind.
Whatever the pope’s specific intent, the release of his will provided new insight into his thought process as he led the church into a new millennium at a time when his health was failing. Those somber reflections were made public as security preparations reached a fever pitch around the Vatican and Rome, and huge crowds continued to press in toward St. Peter’s Square, the site of today’s funeral.
Overhead, helicopters circled almost constantly, while squadrons of jet fighters and police aircraft crisscrossed the sky.
With more than 200 dignitaries from around the globe expected for the funeral, there also were reports of anti-aircraft missiles, snipers and even a naval ship being moved in to help provide security.
On a more mundane level, Roman authorities blocked off streets around the Vatican, leaving them comparatively calm after days of crushing crowds. The city planned to ban all auto traffic early this morning, and nearby airports were set to close for the day.
Crowd estimates varied wildly Thursday, with some reports saying visitors outnumbered Rome’s 3.7 million residents. With pilgrims continuing to arrive from every direction – one pair of young men said they had hitchhiked 37 hours from the Netherlands – it became almost impossible to establish a solid number.
The Vatican surprised many of the late arrivals by reopening the line for those who wanted to pay last respects to the pope, after having closed it Wednesday night. Church officials estimated that 2 million people would pass by the pontiff’s body during the remarkable vigil.
As the visitation line was closed off a second time late Thursday, the last of the visitors were followed immediately by the first campers preparing to spend the night, in hopes of getting a spot in St. Peter’s Square for the funeral.
On Thursday night, Chicago Cardinal Francis George and his colleagues from the United States attended a reception at Villa Taverna, the residence of the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. While there, they met President Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Earlier Thursday the cardinals met behind closed doors, as they will every day until they begin the conclave to choose a new pope beginning April 18.
One of their number, Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned as archbishop of Boston at the height of the priest sexual abuse scandal, came under fire from activists who were angry that he had been appointed to lead one of the pope’s funeral Masses.
But as his final farewell drew close, it was the pope’s words that drew the most attention.
The document released Thursday devoted little space to matters typical of most wills. The pontiff’s only reference to an inheritance, in 1979, instructed his secretary “Don Stanislaw,” now Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, to distribute his personal effects as he thought proper. The Vatican has said the pope left no monetary estate.
Instead the pontiff focused on spiritual considerations of death.
“Each one of us must keep in mind the prospect of death. And must be ready to present himself before the Lord and Judge – and contemporaneously Redeemer and Father,” he wrote in early 1980, when he was 59 and vigorous.
In 1982, reflecting on the assassination attempt that nearly killed him the previous year, he briefly noted that the brush with death “confirmed the exactness” of those prescient 1980 words.
Like so much of Pope John Paul II’s writing, the will considers the sweep of history. Unlike the huge volumes of official writing, however, or even popular books such as “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” there is a familiar tone to the will, salted with frank and topical references.
In his 2000 entry, the pope talked of the “difficult and tense general situation which marked the 1980s,” a time when he was in the thick of Soviet communism’s last struggle against advancing democratic movements in Eastern Europe.
“In a special way may Divine Providence be praised for this, that the period of the so-called ‘cold war’ ended without violent nuclear conflict, the danger of which weighed upon the world,” he wrote.
The will also is filled with gratitude.
He recalls his debt to the “great gift of Vatican Council II.” His last entry is devoted to thanking people, an extravagant and touching list that begins with God and moves through bishops; laypeople; interfaith friends; Rome; Krakow, Poland; his family members; his school friends; and those he tended to throughout his clerical career.
“Probably the Lord God has called to Himself the majority of them,” he observes. “As to those who are still on this side, may the words of this testament recall them, everyone and everywhere, wherever they are.”