(CBS) Tom Fenton, in his fourth decade with CBS News, has been the network’s Senior European Correspondent since 1979. He comments on international events from his “Listening Post” in London, and other parts of the world as well.
The pilgrimage of Pope Jean Paul II to the French shrine of Lourdes was in many ways a capstone to his exceptionally long pontificate. His 104th foreign trip may not have been his last, but for the ailing spiritual leader of the world’s Catholics, it may have been the most significant.
At 84, he is now almost completely incapacitated. The severe arthritis in his left knee prevents him from walking. The act of kneeling in the grotto of Lourdes to pray to the statue of the Virgin Mary was as much as he could do. He collapsed as he tried to get back up and had to be lifted onto his mobile throne by his minders. This once athletic priest who loved the great outdoors is now a prisoner in a body that no longer responds to his needs.
His speech to the pilgrims who come to Lourdes in search of a cure and spiritual comfort had to be read by one of his cardinals. Years of Parkinson’s disease have almost robbed him of the ability to speak.
He has reached, he wrote, a “time of life marked by physical suffering, but for all that no less fruitful in the admirable plans of God.” Clearly, this 84-year-old pope is determined to continue to guide the Catholic Church with a firm hand on the tiller. But his hand is shaky, and it grips the armrest of his mobile throne as if he were hanging on for dear life.
When he does speak, it is very, very difficult to understand what he is saying. French television had to use subtitles for his homily at the great open air mass, even though the pope was speaking in French. He gasps for air as he speaks. He pauses to gather the strength to pronounce the next few words. He drools like a baby. Careful television editing spares viewers the worst of this.
Sometimes he cannot speak at all for several minutes. The crowds in Lourdes understood and sympathized. During the awkward pauses, they applauded to give him time to recuperate. And when he resumed speaking, they applauded him again for his effort.
One of the most remarkable gifts of this pope is his ability to connect with young people. There were tens of thousands of them in Lourdes – along with the sick and the elderly – and they seemed to hang onto his every mangled, tortured word as if he were a rock star.
His message to the young and to all the faithful was what you would expect from a robustly conservative Polish pope: Life is precious and must be defended from the moment of conception. That brought the biggest round of applause.
This pope’s spiritual life has been especially devoted to the cult of the Virgin Mary. After he was shot by a Turkish terrorist in 1981 in St. Peter’s Square, John Paul declared that the hand of Mary had deflected the bullet and saved his life. His papal coat of arms carries a large letter “M” for Mary. His motto is “All for You.”
This was his third pilgrimage to Lourdes, the small French community where a simple peasant girl reported a series of visions of the Blessed Virgin in 1858. Lourdes quickly gained a reputation for miraculous cures and became the most popular Catholic shrine in Europe. John Paul made his first visit when he was still only a bishop and no one imagined he would ever become pope.
On his second visit in 1983, he denounced the oppression of Christians behind the Iron Curtain. Communism is now dead, and Pope John Paul II played a major role in consigning it to the trashcan of history. In that sense, his greatest mission has been accomplished.
What was he seeking this time? The sad truth for this proactive pope is that there are other evils abroad in the world today – the horrors of war, fanaticism, hatred and religious intolerance. On this visit, he prayed that “every person would see in his neighbor not an enemy to combat, but a brother to welcome and love, to build together a better world.” That is a dream he will certainly never live to see.
Of course many liberal Catholics disagree with his strict interpretations of some Catholic teachings. But history will probably remember him more for what he accomplished as a moral force that helped bring about the end of communism. His later years will be remembered for his willpower in the face of physical disabilities.
There is one thing you can say with certainty about this unusual pope. He still aims high, even if he has been laid low by his afflictions.