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Pope's Illness Highlights Dual Role

Tradition Requires Pontiff to Persevere

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 5, 2005; Page A12

ROME, Feb. 4 -- In 1178, Pope Alexander III paraded through Rome during Lent and was greeted, according to a biographer at the time, by a crowd that "looked at his face as the face of Christ, of which he is the deputy on earth."

It was a period in the Middle Ages when the pontiff was identified not only as head of the Roman Catholic Church, successor of St. Peter, the church's founder, but also as the Vicar, or deputy, of Christ himself. From the Middle Ages on, the pope's person and his body were considered unlike any others. He was both mortal man and eternal metaphor.


A nun, seen through a window reflecting Jesus's image, prays at the Sanctuary of Divine Love outside Rome. A spokesman said the pope hoped to make his Sunday address. (Max Rossi -- Reuters)

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This past week in Rome, Pope John Paul II has been bedridden with severe breathing problems brought on by flu. With hundreds of news cameras trained on the hospital where he lies, papal observers are again remarking on the dual role of the pope's flesh and blood person. They see in this double existence the key reason why the suffering pope, at age 84, will persevere in office until death.

"The self-humiliation that the pope inflicts on himself each day in front of the television cameras courageously recounts a thousand-year-old story," said Sergio Luzzatto, a historian and papal expert. "For believers, the Vicar of Christ is called on to bear witness to the dual nature of Jesus: human and divine. No matter how sick, a pope cannot step down for the simple reason that his body is not his."

John Paul II has decided to make a long and painful lesson out of his evident decline, observers of the church say. "For Catholics, the holiness of the Polish pope will possibly appear evident in the manner of heroic virtue, by the strength and dignity with which he lives his daily martyrdom," Luzzatto said.

Admirers of the pope's persistence take issue with skeptics who say that John Paul II is being pushed by his inner circle to endure. A columnist in La Repubblica newspaper described him as being "crushed" by the church. It's the other way around, insisted Pietro de Marco, a dean and professor of religion at the University of Florence. "The institution has been and is, even with more than a little resistance, at the service of the pope and his charisma, and at this extreme moment as never before."

"The pope has shown great courage in sickness, old age and, we can say, going toward death," said Federico Lombardi, the priest who heads Radio Vatican.

This penchant for making a parable of suffering clashes with the secrecy that has surrounded the health of recent popes. While strength in the face of death may be a salutary lesson for congregations worldwide, the pope's entourage is also determined to assure everyone that the pope is recovering. "You'll notice," said Alberto Melloni, a historian of the Catholic Church, "that in Vatican statements, the pope is always getting better."

On Friday, the Vatican issued the latest in a series of optimistic reports. It said the pontiff's illness had shown a "favorable evolution." The Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, told reporters that the pope would like to make his customary Sunday statements and blessing: "It's something he does not want to miss," he said. It could be broadcast from the hospital to a giant television screen on St. Peter's Square, Vatican officials added.

Navarro was evasive about when the pope began eating for the first time after being admitted to Gemelli Polyclinic hospital Tuesday. "Certainly today," he said, "Maybe yesterday evening."

Navarro-Valls brushed aside any notion that John Paul II was unable to carry out his duties. As head of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics, John Paul has the final word on church policies and doctrine and on the appointment of bishops. Church law states that only the pope holds "full and supreme power."

"If there are things that need a decision by the Holy Father, it is the Holy Father who will make those decisions," Navarro-Valls said.

Day-to-day Vatican affairs are in the hands of Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the secretary of state, who is in effect the Vatican's prime minister.

It has become a journalistic cliche that interest in John Paul II's health is a morbid media circus. However, interest in the pope's health is hardly a recent phenomenon. In the Middle Ages, when word spread that a pope might be deathly ill, Roman citizens, who once had a hand in electing the pope, would sometimes riot and loot his belongings.

European kings used to keep an eye on the pope's health, if for no other reason than to be ready to influence the cardinals eligible to vote for a new pope in favor of their own candidates.

A fashion of secrecy grew in the 19th and 20th centuries as church power became increasingly centralized in the Vatican, analysts say. John Paul II, however, has been the most publicly viewed pontiff in history and it is difficult to shut off media attention now that he is ill.

"In a sense, it's part of his legacy," Melloni said. "If you want to be under the eye of the media, you suffer the consequences."


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