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Pope John Paul II: 1920 - 2005

In twilight of his life, pope considered resignation

In a testament spanning 22 years, he spoke of tough times and prayed for strength to carry out his mission.

By Associated Press
Published April 8, 2005

VATICAN CITY - Pope John Paul II, weighed down by illness and age, considered resigning as he turned 80 in 2000, according to his last will and testament published Thursday. The pope also wrote of tormented times for himself and the church and left instructions for his notes to be burned.

The 15-page document, written in several entries over 22 years, provides extraordinary insight into the pope's thinking in the twilight of his life as he reflected about death and his legacy, and as he prayed for the "necessary strength" to continue his mission.

"The times in which we live are unutterably difficult and disturbed," he wrote in 1980, according to the official Vatican translation from Polish. "The path of the church has also become difficult and tense ... both for the faithful and for pastors."

Pope John Paul's funeral today promised to be one of the largest Western religious gatherings of modern times, conducted with the pomp of an ancient liturgy and attended by royalty, political power brokers and multitudes of the faithful.

Throngs of pilgrims - an estimated 2-million since the pope's body went on public view Monday - had filed past the pope's bier in St. Peter's Basilica before its towering bronze doors were closed late Thursday. Some 4-million people have flooded into Rome to be nearer the pope before his funeral and burial in the Vatican grotto Friday.

In a March 1979 entry to his testament, Pope John Paul said he left no material property and asked that his longtime private secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, burn all his personal notes.

The testament mentioned only two living people: Dziwisz and the retired chief rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, who welcomed him to the city's synagogue in 1986 in a historic gesture of reconciliation between Roman Catholics and Jews.

The pope started writing his will in 1979, only a year after being elected. The final entry was in 2000, when he was in pain and suffering Parkinson's disease. He died Saturday at age 84.

Each entry was written in Polish during Lent, the period of reflection before Easter.

In the final entry, he appeared to consider stepping aside. "Providence has seen fit for me to live in a difficult century which is fading into the past, and now in the year in which I reach my 80s, one needs to ask oneself if it is not the time to repeat with the biblical Simeone, the Nunc dimittis," the pope writes, referencing a passage from the Gospel of St. Luke, "Now Master you may let your servant go."

He reflected that he had been saved from death in a 1981 assassination attempt "in a miraculous way" and said his fate was even more in the hands of God.

"He prolonged this life, in a certain sense he granted me a new one. From this moment, it belongs to Him more than ever. I hope He helps me recognize until when I have to continue in this service," said the testament.

The pope wrote the lengthy addition to his testament three days before he left for a historic trip to the Holy Land, one of the most emotional of his many trips as head of the Catholic Church. At the time, his health was noticeably in decline: His speech had begun to slur, and his walk was unsteady because of a hip operation. He had fallen the year before, requiring stitches in his left temple.

In an early entry, he scratched in the margins that he wanted to be buried "in the bare earth, not a tomb." Accordingly, Pope John Paul will be placed in the grottoes under St. Peter's Basilica.

In 1982, the pope considered the possibility of a funeral in his native Poland. Three years later, however, he left the site of his burial in the hands of the cardinals.

The same entry worried about the safety of the church and of his own country in the days before the fall of the communist regime.

"In some countries ... the church is undergoing a period of such persecution as to be in no way lesser than that of early centuries; indeed, it surpasses them in its degree of cruelty and hatred," he wrote. "And apart from this, many people disappear innocently, even in this country in which we are living."

At the end of the March 2000 entry, Pope John Paul remembered his family, his childhood and his early priesthood in Poland.

"As the end of my life approaches I return with my memory to the beginning, to my parents, to my brother, to the sister (I never knew because she died before my birth), to the parish in Wadowice where I was baptized, to that city I love, to my peers, friends from elementary school, high school and the university, up to the time of the occupation when I was a worker, and then in the parish of Niegowic, then St. Florian's in Krakow, to the pastoral ministry of academics ... to Krakow and to Rome ... to the people who were entrusted to me in a special way by the Lord.

"To all I want to say just one thing: "May God reward you."

Also ...

RESIGNED ARCHBISHOP LEADS MASS: Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in disgrace as archbishop of Boston over his role in the clergy sex abuse crisis, has been given a role of honor in the mourning for Pope John Paul II. The Vatican announced Thursday he will lead one of the daily Masses celebrated in the pope's memory. The service will be held Monday at Rome's St. Mary Major Basilica, where Law was appointed archpriest after leaving Boston. Law stepped down as archbishop within months after a judge unsealed court records in January 2002 that showed he had allowed priests with confirmed histories of molesting children to continue working in parishes. Among the records were letters Law had written to some of the predators expressing support and thanks for their service to the church.

FAST TRACK TO SAINTHOOD?: The Rev. Peter Gumpel, who is spearheading the cause for sainthood for Pope Pius XII, said Thursday that he considers Pope John Paul II worthy and that it is likely the case will be fast-tracked, like that of Mother Teresa. It was Pope John Paul who changed the rules and allowed the Vatican to begin the saintmaking process for Mother Teresa just one year after she died instead of the usual five. The nun died in 1997 and John Paul beatified her in 2003, the last step to possible sainthood.

Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

ON TV TODAY

The funeral Mass was to begin about 4 a.m. EDT and was expected to last about 21/2 hours. Coverage was scheduled on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC. In the evening, MSNBC plans special coverage at 8 p.m. on Countdown and 10 p.m. on Scarborough County. CNN will replay its coverage at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m.

[Last modified April 8, 2005, 00:34:10]


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