One of the youngest cardinals ever elected as pope, Pope John Paul II has been regarded as one of the most influential leaders of the twentieth century and one of the most-travelled world leaders in history. He completed 102 pastoral visits outside of Italy, and 144 within, visiting almost 130 countries during his 26 years as Pope. He was a superb linguist and was fluent in 11 languages. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1993 at age 73.
Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disease that can cause trembling or shaking of different parts of the body. It is progressive and can cause total paralysis and death. There is still contradiction whether the disease altered or affected Pope’s work. As is common with other patients with Parkinson’s disease, the symptoms began to show before the disease was diagnosed. Despite this, the Pope was determined to continue his visits all over the globe, making historic trips to Cuba, South Africa, Syria, Ukraine and Greece, touching the lives of millions of people and reaching out to youth. He revolutionized the modern papacy.
Pope John Paul II had made two visits to China before his Parkinson disease was diagnosed. Thousands of Catholics, as well as many others from different faiths, came to wave and cheer the charismatic leader at that time. The Pope visited China the third time after being affected by the disease in 2002 to attend World Youth Day festivities in Toronto. Despite being visibly frail, the Pope walked down the steps of his chartered jet rather than using the lift provided. It demonstrated the strength of the then 82-year-old pontiff.
With the passing years the disease started affecting Pope’s health and he was visibly suffering and struggling from the slurred speech and trembling of hands. Still he continued his travels, preaching peace, reconciliation and the inviolable dignity of the human person. He used his suffering to bring world attention to the disease and intensify the search for a cure for the disease. His disease did not prevent him from making history and from improving the lives of millions of people. He regularly called attention to the disease during his papal audiences and met several times with representatives of Parkinson disease service organizations.
In his final years the health of Pope deteriorated rapidly. He was unable to walk normally or to speak normally. On Easter Sunday, in 2005 the Pope appeared at his Vatican window to bless the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square. He made an attempt to speak, but he could only deliver a silent blessing. In the words of Pope, “remember the past with gratitude, live the present with enthusiasm, and look forward to the future with confidence”. He did the service of his Church for 12 years after the diagnosis of the Parkinson disease. Pope’s accomplishments have to be counted as extraordinary.
Image attribution: Taken from Wikimedia – JPII_29-09-2004_portret.jpg