I met a man with Parkinson’s’ Disease last week. He lay sunken into his hospital bed, face blank as he watched the tiny television screen in the corner. Slowly, he was helped to his feet. His hands shook, as is expected in patients with Parkinson’s. As he walked, his foot dragged, his hospital stocks resisting against the tile floor.
At first, I noticed his smell. He was recovering from surgery and couldn’t shower or get to the restroom by himself. I was tempted to turn away. But then, a few minutes later, his blank expression began to seem more human. Emotion flooded his face as he asked me a few questions. The conversation wasn’t life shattering or incredibly profound, but it reminded me: this man was more than his sickness.
This man would one day be unable to feed or dress himself because of his tremors. He would face dementia and immobility. He was a man suffering, a man dying.
But, then again, aren’t we all?
ST. JOHN PAUL II
In class the next day, we talked about the substantia nigra, a region of the brain in which deficiency of the neurotransmitter dopamine leads to Parkinson’s. The professor turned our attention to various pictures on the screen of famous people who have suffered from the disease. The last picture, I noticed excitedly, was St. John Paul II.
I was in 3rd grade when he died. I remember hearing the news. To me, at the time, Pope John Paul II was an old, holy man. He was sick, just like our old grandparents get sick. I pictured him tired, hunched atop his seat.
As I grew up and learned more about him, I began to remember the JP2 that existed before my time: a secret force against Nazi occupation, a preserver of Polish arts and culture, an avid sportsman, and, of course, the patron saint of hipsters. I thought back to pictures of him plastered everywhere at his canonization: energetic, inspired, active.
But there, in that lecture hall, I remembered the old, holy man once again. I remembered the Pope hunched in his chair, face blank. I remembered that he would drool unintentionally, that his hands would shake as he blessed the masses. He was a man suffering. A man dying.
As Mark Hart described it, “Watching (now) St. John Paul the Great in those final months was like watching a soul drag a body behind it.”
JP2 was indeed a man suffering and a man dying. But we remember him now not because of his sickness or his gradual decline. We remember him a saint, a man who embraced life—and death—with dignity.
He was given a mighty cross in the last years of his life. Imagine his thoughts as trips to the doctor replaced trips to the mountains, as the hands entrusted with the Church on earth trembled violently. Someone had to help the mighty ruler eat, dress, and live. And still, he led us. Still, he blessed us. He gave his life—spiritually, emotionally, and physically—to the vocation the Lord had called him to. With radical abandon, he entrusted his suffering to God.
As he once said, “man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self.”
I think we can learn a lot from St. JP2 today. In a world where physician-assisted suicide is considered brave, where killing oneself in place of facing a terminal disease is deemed “dying with dignity,” St. JP2’s example speaks volumes.
What if he had had given up? What if he had woken up one day and realized that he would die from this, that he would be unable to function by himself, that he could no longer do the things he loved to do? What if this realization had led him to believe it wasn’t worth it, that he would be less of a person, that he might as well die now, before it took his body away from him?
If St. John Paul II had killed himself at the news of his diagnosis, think of how many people it would have affected. The people inspired by his outreach in the years before his passing. The people who had seen him emanate light amid suffering. The people like me who look back on his suffering and view that as his most daring act of love, even above his secret escapades against the Nazis or his global impact and influence.
We would remember not a “gentle lion,” but a poor man dealt a sad hand.
But what bravery we, instead, reflect on. What bravery it took for JP2 to realize that his physical ability did not determine his personhood. What profound wisdom it took for him to realize the gift of the body, and to accept the fact that it would one day decline. In this humble submission to God’s will, JP2 turned tragedy and suffering into a total gift of self.
He poured himself out even more in the face of his own mortality. He gave and gave and gave until there was nothing left of him.
And where did it get him? The grave… and then heaven.
WHERE ARE WE GOING?
We, too, will end up in the grave. That’s out of our control.
We will die. We will suffer. We will face a time when we can’t do the things we once loved, when our minds aren’t as sharp as they once were. Soon we will look in the mirror and see one suffering, one dying.
But that second part, the heaven part, that is completely within our control.
We don’t have to be dragged into our final days. Instead, we can die with dignity, emulating the example of St. John Paul the Great as we run wholeheartedly toward God’s plan for us without hesitation. Only then can we see that our demise can be inspiring and beautiful. It can convert souls, incite joy, and lead us closer to the embrace of Christ Himself.
Amid suffering and pain, let us embrace our cross. Because, for every painful step we take toward our own personal crucifixion, we grow one step closer to the chance of eternal union with the Lord.
“The way Jesus shows you is not easy. Rather, it is like a path winding up a mountain. Do not lose heart! The steeper the road, the faster it rises towards ever wider horizons.” (St. JP2)