On April 27, Pope Francis will canonize “Good Pope John XXIII” and “John Paul the Great.” Together these two popes produced 22 encyclicals on a wide range of topics. What is most striking to us as Little Sisters of the Poor at the service of the elderly are the “last encyclicals” of these two great men of God — for they were composed not of words, but of the lived example of two saints as they journeyed toward the Father’s house.
The concept of a lived “last encyclical” originates in the thought of John Paul II himself, who once shared this conviction with a friend: “I have written many encyclicals and many apostolic letters, but I realize that it is only with my suffering that I can best help mankind. Think of the value of pain, suffered and offered with love.…”
For John Paul II, suffering was an opportunity for solidarity. As he was released from the hospital after being shot in 1981, he thanked God for saving his life and allowing him to belong “to the community of the sick suffering … who constitute, in a certain sense, a special segment of the Church.”
John Paul II later penned an apostolic letter on the Christian meaning of suffering, in which he shared this stunning insight: “Suffering is present in the world in order to release love, in order to give birth to works of love towards neighbor, in order to transform the whole of human civilization into a ‘civilization of love.’”
Isn’t this exactly how he ended his own life, as millions of people around the world kept vigil with him? From his deathbed John Paul, who had always had a special bond with the young, delivered this final message to the young people gathered below his window: “I have sought you out. Now you have come to me. I thank you.” These are the words of a man who was not afraid to share the burden of his suffering with others in a spirit of love and solidarity.
By not hiding his increasing frailty, John Paul II also witnessed to the salvific value of suffering. In 1992 he confided to a friend, “The Church needs suffering. … What are my sufferings compared with the sufferings of Jesus?” Two years later he said to another friend, “Do you think I can’t see myself, and the shape I’m in, on television?”, but he did not shy away from public appearances.
When he was urged not to strain himself during Holy Week 2005, he replied, “Jesus did not descend from the cross, why should I?” His final words, “Let me go to the Father’s house,” manifested his absolute confidence in the merciful love of God. “That is exactly what God intends with death,” he once wrote, “that at this one sublime hour of our life we allow ourselves to fall into his love without any other security than this love of his.”
Angelo Roncalli was already an old man when he became Pope John XXIII in 1958. Consistent with the way he had always lived, his favorite title was “Servant of the Servants of God.” Despite his advanced age, he had the boldness to breathe fresh air into the Church by initiating the Second Vatican Council. Yet a bedtime prayer attributed to Pope John XIII attests to his childlike trust in God: “I’ve done the best I could in your service this day, Oh Lord. I’m going to bed. It’s your Church. Take care of it!”
John XXIII had this same spirit of simplicity regarding death. In 1961, recognizing his increasing infirmity, he penned the following prayer: “O Jesus, here I am before you. You are suffering and dying for me, old as I am now and drawing near the end of my service and my life. Hold me closely, and near to your heart, letting mine beat with yours. I love to feel myself bound forever to you with a gold chain, woven of lovely, delicate links….” Like John Paul II, John XXIII died in his papal apartment surrounded by his closest collaborators.
We see from their words and example how these beloved popes trusted completely in the love of God, resting in his heart and allowing themselves to “fall into his love.” If you are laden down with the burdens of old age or illness, or care for someone who is, confide your needs to the intercession of St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II. Surely they will lead you and those you love to rest confidently in the loving and merciful heart of Christ.
Sister Constance Carolyn Veit, l.s.p., is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor in the United States.