It was a year ago this week that the world witnessed the final agony and passion of Pope John Paul II as he neared his death on April 2, 2005. As we prepare to commemorate the first anniversary of the Holy Father's death next weekend, I would like to recall those moving days and look at the meaning of the Christian "good death" he left us in the last great teaching moment of his 26-year pontificate.
When people today speak about a "good death," they usually refer to an attempt to control the end of one's life, even through physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia. The Christian notion of a good death, however, is death not as a good end, but a good transition, that requires faith, proper acceptance and readiness.
John Paul showed us true dignity in the face of death. The pope's final illness took a turn for the worse on Feb. 24 last year, when he was re-hospitalized. Although he returned to the Vatican, rather than hide his infirmities, as most public figures do, he let the whole world see what he went through.
Before the cameras, John Paul taught that although science can ease discomfort, palliative care should not be used as a cloak to hide the fact of dying. As the curtain was about to fall, nothing made him waver, even the debilitating sickness hidden under the glazed Parkinsonian mask, and ultimately his inability to speak and move.
Sick have value
One of the great, silent teaching moments of those final days took place when the pope was televised in his chapel embracing a cross in his hands with his cheek resting against the wood, and his accepting of suffering and death needed no words.
In our youth-obsessed culture, he reminded us that aging and suffering are a natural part of being human. Where the old and infirm are so easily put in homes and forgotten, the pope was a powerful reminder that the sick, the handicapped and the dying have great value.
John Paul taught us there was much more to the papacy than speaking, writing, greeting people and traveling -- although he certainly did all of that. He taught us how to live, suffer and die.
The stories of the saints highlight the moment of death and their certainty that they are going to heaven. John Paul's last words were: "Let me go to the house of the Father." In the intimate setting of prayer, as mass was celebrated at the foot of his bed and the throngs of faithful sang below in St. Peter's Square, he died at 9:37 p.m. on April 2.
After his death, the Catholic church found itself in a similar position to where the Protestant world will be after the death of Billy Graham -- wondering how to replace such a towering figure. The truth is that we don't replace them. They're giants, charismatic individuals, not offices. They are great gifts given to us for a certain time. We must cherish them, be grateful for them and above all, learn from them.