National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 24, 2003

Despite ups and downs, he just won't quit

Around the Vatican this week, the big story is the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II. It is only the third time in church history that a pope has reached a silver jubilee -- the previous two were Pius IX and [Leo XIII]. Add to that the point that no pope has ever shouldered the burdens that John Paul II has taken upon himself, and the true dimensions of his sense of duty begin to reveal themselves.

This is a man who just won’t quit.

The flip side of his iron determination, of course, is concern over just how much longer his physical capacity to govern will hold up. The latest health scare came Sunday, Oct. 12, when a rumor swept through Rome that the pope was on dialysis. Cell phones went off across town, as networks put doctors on standby, and nervous TV crews went onto red alert. Within a couple of hours, however, it became clear that the rumor was unfounded.

Despite some very public ups and downs, the pope has so far made it through his October schedule. Meanwhile, Vatican officials seem to be preparing the world for an increasingly limited papacy. Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, a Portuguese prelate who heads the Congregation for Saints, said Oct. 12 that John Paul could continue to run the church even if he loses his ability to speak.

My sense is that most observers in town, including many in the Vatican, find themselves in an oddly schizophrenic state -- on the one hand ready for anything to happen, on the other well aware of John Paul’s track record for outliving predictions of his demise.

I was recently interviewed by Io Donna, the Saturday magazine of Italy’s leading daily newspaper Corriere della Sera about the massive, and sometimes slightly ghoulish, media interest in the pope’s health and the next conclave. The reporter asked if I thought John Paul himself finds it distasteful.

While the pope has never shared his feelings with me, I said I would hazard a guess that he is the last guy who would be scandalized by it all. He understands that you have to take the bitter with the sweet, and if the Catholic church wants the world to take the papacy seriously, the price it must pay is a certain morbid curiosity about the pope’s health and what happens after he dies. The six-figure network contracts for rental of Roman rooftops and the scramble for talking heads is simply the way the global media has of indicating that this story is important, that the papacy counts.

I believe John Paul gets that, even if not everyone in the organization he leads always does.

-- John L. Allen Jr.

For more on the pope’s anniversary, a talk with U.S. ambassador to the Vatican James Nicholson, and a report on Archbishop Oscar Romero’s sainthood cause, see John Allen’s column at

National Catholic Reporter, October 24, 2003  [corrected 10/31/2003]

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