March 29, 2005

Palm Sunday


I have to admit, I’ve only had one eye on the story of the Pope’s declining health  — until now.

With the Pope’s respiratory problems and tracheotomy coinciding with the debate over medical intervention at life’s end, one could easily envision some tortuous days ahead for the Vatican (link).  Rather than thread this story through the needle eye of politics, however, it seems there are larger issues at play. 

To say there is a lot of interest now in death –and death as a part of life — would be belaboring the obvious.  I don’t think it’s just because of Terri Schiavo’s ill fortune or the Pope’s descent, however.  Rather, I think that mortality is a theme currently playing out in any number of ways.  As my previous post suggests, the maturing of the Iraq campaign is creating strong reflection over what we got ourselves into — and at what price.  With the first wave of post 9/11 fiction coming forward, it suggests a new examination of that experience.  Also, the drumbeat surrounding Social Security has certainly heightened awareness of the life span, and consideration of the inevitable.  Beyond that, other life cycle reminders seem to be kicking around the collective consciousness.  Some of the tension in the Republican ranks probably has to do with the impending sunset of the Bush Administration.  Finally, don’t forget we’re in the death throes of winter right now.

If the subject is mortality, however, the world’s biggest theatre has to be Rome.  Even if he manages to rally and pull himself back together for a while, the Pope is clearly in his twilight.  At the same time, he couldn’t be showing more grace.  In the early days of his papacy, I was excited by the way Karol Wojtyla advocated for human rights and helped bolster the Polish Solidarity movement.  In the interim, I held out little hope for an exception to his moral extremism.  This weekend, though, the Pope really touched me again.  Virtually mute, the way he spoke by way of a few sounds and facial expressions was far more eloquent than words could ever express.

As the Pope demonstrates grace and poignance in balancing between the now and the never more, this photo of him — in his appearance on Palm Sunday– expresses a similar dignity and balance.  He looks waxy, but he also couldn’t be more expressive;  he basks in the light, but he is also falling into the darkness; the fact it’s a photo conveys life in the moment, but it also looks like a painting, conveying a record for posterity; and, the palm branch seems so vital, while the tree opposite seems so mature.

At a point of such interest in cessation, with so many issues spelling life or death, it’s tragic so many of our highest leaders fail to convey a sense of it.  In what window he has, the Pope is in a real position to lead.

(image: Domenico Stinellis/AP in The New York Times)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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