No other public figure has had his deteriorating physical condition and sufferings on such prolonged public display as Pope John Paul II. In recent weeks, his pain-wracked face and barely audible voice have been featured, analysed and discussed in the media.
Ever since the unsuccessful attempt on his life in 1981, John Paul II's medical condition has been under the media microscope. At the time he assumed the Papacy in 1978 and for many years after, he was a physically strong and impressive-looking man. But by the 1990s, his age and many infirmities had begun to take their visible toll; and he lives now only by a superhuman act of the will.
His inability to preside over this year's Holy Week ceremonies in St Peter's Basilica emphasise his humanity, while inevitably raising speculation about his ability to keep going.
In 1994, he told Catholics: "The Pope must suffer so that every family and the world should see that there is, I would say, a higher gospel: the gospel of suffering, with which one must prepare the future." When asked if he would consider resigning, he was said to have responded: "Did Christ come down from the cross?"
John Paul II's determination to "take up his cross" has underscored his insistent articulation of the central Christian teaching on the intrinsic sacredness of human life from the moment of conception to the end of one's earthly span of years.
In short, as we recall Christ's death and resurrection on Easter Sunday, the Pope's own Calvary has proved to be his most powerful message.
- Michael Gilchrist: Editor (email - firstname.lastname@example.org)