Dignity Inspires Area's Faithful

By David Cho and Bill Broadway
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 1, 2005

Tears welled in Jim Bradshaw's eyes this week as he watched news broadcasts of an ailing Pope John Paul II giving up his attempt at a blessing after managing no more than an unrecognizable whisper.

That image of determination and futility immediately sent the 63-year-old Arlington resident to his knees in fervent prayer. At that moment, Bradshaw said, he sensed something as unthinkable as it was plain: The end is near.

"We know he is suffering," Bradshaw said yesterday while crying softly. "We are all praying for him . . . because we feel for him and identify with him and we see from him that it's so true that suffering is part of the human condition."

For nearly three decades, the pope has been a larger-than-life figure, winning hearts with his charisma and relentless public appearances and travels. With their leader facing the worst health crisis of his life, local Catholics reacted yesterday with grief and worry over the future course of the church.

A few questioned whether the pontiff, who is 84, should continue to govern the church in his condition. But most conveyed their sense of connection to this pope, describing how he inspired them by his compassion and made himself accessible to the average churchgoer.

Even those who opposed many of his conservative teachings found themselves moved by his resolve.

Frances Kissling, president of the 31-year-old Catholics for a Free Choice, said she spent most of those years fighting the pope's views on abortion and reproductive health.

"I disagree with him, but that's a different issue now," she said. "Personally, I find his ill health and his stamina in suffering to be inspirational. We all think about what it is to live in suffering."

Loni Ellis, 60, who works at a D.C. law firm and disagrees with the pope's "orthodox teachings" on social issues such as abortion, contraception and homosexuality, said John Paul is "about as spiritually perfect as a mortal can be. . . . He just might be the holiest man alive."

The pope's health seemed to worsen significantly this week. Some news outlets reported yesterday that he had been given the sacrament of the anointing of the sick after he developed a high fever from a urinary tract infection. On Wednesday, Vatican officials announced that a feeding tube had been inserted through the pope's nose to supply extra nutrition. He was rushed to the hospital twice last month with breathing problems and underwent a tracheostomy.

For years, John Paul has battled Parkinson's disease, an incurable neurological illness that causes muscle stiffness and trembling. For more than a year, he has not been able to stand. In 1994, he underwent hip replacement surgery after falling in the bathroom, and he has had a benign tumor removed from his colon. In 1981, he was shot in the abdomen by Mehmet Ali Agca.

His appearances before crowds in Rome, even during times of great illness, have been a hallmark of the pope's 26-year tenure. But since his last public remarks March 13, he has been unable to deliver his usual blessings to the masses. On Easter Sunday and on Wednesday, he was able to utter only a few sounds into a microphone from his apartment window before giving up.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of the Archdiocese of Washington said the pope's frustration at his inability to speak is one indication of his suffering. But the pope has always taught that such affliction has value, he said.

"We would love for [the pope] to get better, to continue doing the great things he has done so beautifully," McCarrick said at a news conference yesterday at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Northwest Washington. "But we don't want him to be suffering, and he is now going through suffering."

McCarrick said in an interview that he doubts that the pope has a living will. But he said John Paul has made it clear that he considers food and hydration to be ordinary measures to keep someone alive, even if given by a tube. It is unclear what he thinks about measures beyond food and water, the cardinal said.

The Rev. Charles E. Pope of St. Thomas More parish in Southeast Washington said: "What I have heard from my conversations with people is that they are inspired by the dignity of the pope during these days. Some people want to turn their face away when people are suffering, but for the Christian there is glory in suffering just as Jesus showed us . . . and the pope is showing great patience in his suffering."

Walter Johnson and others pray for the health of Pope John Paul II at an afternoon Mass at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company