As I write this article, the pope has just undergone tracheotomy surgery. This surgery is done to save life but at the expense of permanent damage. The throat of a patient is cut to allow more air to get to the lungs through a special tube. My mother had the same surgery a year before she passed away, so I know how many inconveniences this brings. The patient need to learn talking, eating, and bathing with the tube inside; the mucus that gathers in the tube needs to be suctioned away. This surgery is done as a last resort, since it makes the life of the patient and people around him difficult.
It is hard to imagine what the world would look like today if there was no Pope John Paul II. Our Polish pope has already lasted a generation, and the whole political system changed at least partly thanks to him. When he was first elected, we Poles could not believe our good fortune; now, another generation born in the 70s and 80s in Poland do not know the world without this pope!
I saw Karol Wojtyla a couple of times when he was a cardinal and an archbishop in my hometown, Krakow. He was a very active and a busy person. I remember we were waiting for him in a parish and he was a half an hour later than planned. He was very friendly, he hugged a kid standing next to me on the way to the church. At that moment I really wanted to be a kid again, maybe the cardinal would hug me also.
We thought that communism would be for a very long time. The pope told us during his first visit not to be afraid. He prayed spirit, come and renew the face of the earth. People listened to the pope and realized their internal strength, they looked around at the countless crowds and they realized they had power because there were so many of them who wanted the same! We did not need to wait too long: the next year Solidarity was registered after peaceful demonstrations without military intervention. This was just the prelude to the fall of communism; martial law came and the deep economic crisis, but nothing was the same anymore, hope was never lost. We had the pope in Rome and he came back during the time of martial law to comfort us. In spite of being loved by people, this pope is a very spiritual person. I saw him deeply immersed in prayer at the grave of his parents in Poland, surrounded by camera flashes. Somebody else would explode for being deprived of privacy, but the pope did not mind since he was in another state of mind.
This pope is admired but criticized. On one hand, our pope is inclusive rather than exclusive, he is open to a dialogue. During his papacy the relationship of Catholics with Jews improved dramatically. He was the first pope to participate in prayer in a synagogue, he prayed with Protestants, Buddhists and Muslims. Always energetic, liking sport and modern music, he formed a close bond with young people. Now because of his poor health, he seems closer to those who are sick and elderly. He fulfilled his mission by visiting people of any nation and ethnicity he could and appealed to rich countries and societies to help the poor. The pope attracts diverse groups of people. Never in my life did I see so many hippies with white ribbons on their shirts as during the white march organized in Krakow in 1981 in solidarity with the pope after the assassination attempt. Roma had special sections during the pope's mass in Krakow. I was surprised to see so many diverse groups of people in our seemingly homogenous Polish society next to the pope.
But this pope is not a cheerleader, he does not change his mind to please the press or the audience. He does not bend the church's rules or "lower the threshold" to be Catholic just to attract more believers. Thus, some people are anxious to see him retired and replaced by someone more progressive in their eyes. It is as though being the pope was just another job from eight to five, not a vocation or lifelong mission. For us Poles, we just wish our pope to live forever!
Stories of Karol: The Unknown Life of John Paul II (Hardcover), by Gian Franco Svidercoschi, Peter Heinegg (Translator)
Over 200 texts from messages issued on 85 apostolic journeys made by the most traveled pope of the century: Pope John Paul II: In My Own Words, by Pope John Paul II