Papal vigil - A moral voice for the world

The world of Christendom, like an extended family, yesterday held vigil for Pope John Paul II, who lay unconscious and gravely ill in his Vatican sickbed.

As the leader of the world’s billion Catholics seemingly faced his final hours, the prayers of the world’s religious leaders united with those of thousands of pilgrims in St Peter’s Square who had gathered in sadness for a final farewell to the most charismatic Pope in the history of the papacy.

Heart failure after contracting a urinary tract infection added to the Pontiff’s burden, borne courageously by a man who has suffered from the debilitating Parkinson’s Disease and who has been seriously ill for the past two months.

Despite his critical condition, His Holiness celebrated Mass from his bed and also asked that the Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, be read to him, a practice he has observed every Friday since he became Pope.

Although Vatican statements indicated the Pope was “incredibly serene” and conscious, Catholics throughout the world have prepared themselves for the announcement of his death.

According to spokesman Dr Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Pope had been given the Holy Viaticum, communion reserved for those close to death, formerly called the Last Rites.

It was the second time in his lifetime that the Pope was administered the Last Rites, the previous occasion being in 1981 when he, miraculously, survived an assassination attempt.

Yesterday, the Pontiff received his closest advisers from early morning, a gesture seen by observers as a sombre omen.

The Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Sean Brady appealed to the faithful to pray for the Holy Father, who visited this country in 1979, a visit which left an indelible memory for those privileged to witness it.

It brought a new religious fervour among young people, especially. In Drogheda, he delivered a memorable appeal to the Provisional IRA to abandon violence.

Now in his 84th year, Pope John Paul II was elected to the Chair of Peter 26 years ago, when Leonid Brezhnev ruled the Kremlin, and President Jimmy Carter occupied the White House.

It was an historic papacy, as Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became the first ever non-Italian to lead the Catholic Church in 455 years.

In the intervening quarter of a century, he has unswervingly adhered to his mission as the pastor of the world’s Catholics, spreading the Word of God strictly in his own authoritarian fashion.

Obviously, his roots were firmly grounded in his Polish and Catholic background and his subsequent reign was characterised by those fundamental beliefs, which he never allowed become diluted.

Yet, he did not resent modern advances, especially in technology, but embraced and employed them to carry out his evangelism. He was the most travelled Pontiff of all time, and he used television extensively to spread his message to the world.

Apart from how his papacy influenced global affairs, Pope John Paul II, by his forbearance in the face of serious illness, offered comfort to others similarly afflicted.

This has been especially true in these latter days as the world has witnessed him courageously endeavouring to carry out his pastoral duties, although showing the physical signs of the cost of doing so.

That resilience is characteristic of the manner in which he led his global flock throughout his papacy.

Many people throughout the world, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, would empathise with Cardinal Christopher Schoenborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, who is praying for an end to the Pope’s suffering.

The Cardinal said he hoped, for the Pope’s sake, that “the moment of relief comes for him”.

As life ebbed from the most respected religious and world leader, it was a measure of the respect he is held in globally, that prayers were offered for him in the four corners of the world, in different languages and to different gods.

From staunch Catholics in his native Poland, to Muslims in France; from the Philippines to Russia, prayers were offered for the dying Pope.

It was symptomatic of that respect and concern, that even in China, concern was expressed for Pope John Paul II, although the regime there does not recognise his authority.

Despite the fact that China severed ties with the Vatican in 1951, the national television service interrupted programmes to carry news bulletins about his health.

Undoubtedly, through his unwavering adherence to his moral beliefs and the doctrines of the Church, although criticised by more liberal observers, Christians and non-Christians would have acknowledged this Pope as a constant in a changing and very often confusing world.

This was encapsulated in the words of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

He said that not only the prayers of Catholics were being offered, but those of fellow Christians and countless others who had grown to respect and admire this man who has been in so many ways a witness and extraordinarily important moral voice for the world.

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