A Portrait of the Pope as a Dying Man

The Last Days of the Parkinson’s Pope

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Los Angeles Times on April 1, 2005.

"For true Christians, the culture of life that matters is the culture of eternal life."

"É troppo vero," the pope said of the painting: "It is too real." That would be Pope Innocent X, Giovanni Battista Pamphilj, commenting on the portrait done of him by Diego Velázquez. The Vicar of Christ on Earth, as the Spanish master captured him in a likeness that portrait artist John Howard Sanden has called the greatest portrait ever painted, has the shrewdly appraising eye of a police interrogator. In a crimson cape, on a crimson throne against a background of black and crimson, he radiates worldly power, and yet his seems a power held in perfect self-possession. His hands, jeweled and manicured, dangle with languid ease from the snowy lace of his sleeves. The Pope knows who he is, and beware: He knows who you are too.

What would DiegoVelázquez make of John Paul II? In his prime, John Paul-like Innocent and even more than Innocent-cut a fine figure. Was he not once named best-dressed man of the year? Like Innocent and even more than Innocent, he had, in his prime, a look that could kill. One saw it in 1983 when he faced down the fiery Sandinista Daniel Ortega at a public Mass in Nicaragua. At what was to have been the moment of confrontation, the consummate revolutionary suddenly seemed a querulous child.

Innocent (1574-1655) came of age in Italy at a time when Protestantism, having engulfed Northern Europe, threatened to engulf all of Europe, but he lived to see Protestantism contained, as the 1648 Peace of Westphalia ended Europe's Religious Wars in a draw. John Paul (1920-2005) came of age in Poland at a time when Communism, having engulfed Eastern Europe, threatened to engulf all of Europe, but he lived to see Russia in retreat and its empire not just contained but demolished. Triumphant? Not quite, either one, and yet rather ostentatiously undefeated. If any artist could build the historical complexity of such a moment into a portrait, it would be Velázquez.

And yet the Velázquez moment, so to call it, is now fifteen years behind us. It might take a Lucian Freud to capture the spectacle of grotesquerie and human ruin that television cameras caught on the balcony above St. Peter's Square as the pope's body succumbed to terminal Parkinson's Disease. Speculation began to rise: Would the pope, who had reversed long-established Catholic teaching by declaring a year ago that death is to be prolonged indefinitely by artificial feeding, practice what he had preached? Or had that revision, celebrated by conservative American Catholics demonstrating outside Terri Schiavo's hospice, really been the pope's doing? And would he, as he now seems to have done, allow his life to come to a less medicalized end?

Some, with memories long enough to include the pontificate of Paul VI, recalled a somewhat similar case. The Catholic parents of Karen Ann Quinlan, a young, single woman in a persistently vegetative state after an accidental drug overdose, went to court-with their priest beside them-to secure the legal right to remove her from artifical respiration and nutrition. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted that right and life support was removed, but the young woman surprised everyone by resuming normal breathing. At that point, her father could not bring himself to withhold artificial feeding, and Karen Ann died only ten years later, of pneumonia, without ever regaining consciousness. Her body slowly retracted into a fetal position. Her bedsores became unstoppable. Her mother has not disguised that the decade was a terrible ordeal.

Slow death by Parkinson's Disease is an even more terrible ordeal as the sufferer-without losing consciousness-loses the ability, for example, to blink or swallow and as nonstop muscular tremors induce excruciating pain. What do the Pope's fellow "PD" sufferers think of his way of coping with his condition? No poll is likely to be taken, but a relative of mine who suffers from the disease recently wrote me in dismay at the thought that what had been done to Terri Schiavo-by which she meant a prolongation of death-might be forced upon her against her will. Taking a tip from her local fire department, she had placed a "vial of life" in her refrigerator with a copy of her living will, her do-not-resuscitate statement (now strengthened by a "do not feed" codicil), her list of prescription drugs, her power of attorney, and the like. Paramedics go first to the refrigerator, she explains, "to see if you have any drugs they need to know about." If you put a message to them under a magnet on the door and keep your papers inside, you have a fighting chance of having your wishes honored. Otherwise, you take your chances.

"And then there is the Pope!" her letter added abruptly. "He is obviously in the end stage of PD with difficulties in breathing and swallowing which is all a part of PD. He is either in denial-or he is a control freak-when he could have been a spokesperson for PD. Of all people he could have brought this ugly disease into the public view! But I guess he believes in suffering and not in science."

The language is candid and harsh. Most of us, seeing the pope, felt pity and perhaps questioned whether he was fully in charge of his own person. But my relative understandably felt, in addition to all that, a grieving and angry sense of an opportunity for world leadership lost. Had the Pope spoken of his disease often and by name, his candor might well have mobilized new scientific resources. In our world, things often work that way. Ironically, of course, the area of medical research with greatest promise of relief to PD suffers is stem cell research, which the church has adamantly opposed. The Bush Administration's opposition to stem cell research, which brought about a rift with the late President Ronald Reagan's widow, Nancy, has been widely read as a play for the more conservative segment of the Catholic vote.

To all of this, I would add that since there is no Christian on the planet whose dying is so closely watched as the Pope's, there was no Christian better placed to teach again the ancient lesson that earthly life is not to be clung to, for it is not the only life we live.

As St. Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5, "We are well aware that when the tent that houses us on earth is folded up, there is a house for us from God, not made by human hands but everlasting, in the heavens. ... In this present tent, we groan under the burden, not that we want to be stripped of our covering, but because we want to be covered with a second garment on top, so that what is mortal in us may be swallowed up by life. It is God who designed us for this very purpose, and he has given us the Spirit as a pledge."

For true Christians, the culture of life that matters is the culture of eternal life. My mother recalls the death of a dearly beloved nun, far gone with Alzheimer's disease, who refused to eat or drink during the last two or three days of her life, saying only, again and again, "I want to go home." For those gathered at her bedside, this-through all the wreck of body and mind-was the testimony of the Spirit that Paul spoke of. This intuition, whether it is to be trusted or not, is scarcely rare. Examples of it in popular music fairly leap to mind. I think myself, as I write this, of Steve Earle's "Pilgrim":

I'm just a pilgrim on this road, boys.

I'm just a pilgrim on this road.

I'm just a pilgrim on this road, boys.

This ain't never been my home.

Would this not have been the testimony of the pope if he had retired at seventy-five, following the rule he himself had imposed on the church's cardinals, and repaired to a monastery to prepare his soul for eternity? This is, after all, the vision that the great cathedrals and the church itself exist to recall. Had some such combination of humility and piety filled the pope's last years, the final transcendent resignation of his passing would have called for the gifts not of a Velázquez but only of a 21st-century Rembrandt.