Pope John Paul II Hovers Near Death

The tone of the prayers spoken aloud reflected a calm acceptance that the end of John Paul’s days was not far off.

At St. Patrick’s, Calm Acceptance and Quiet Prayers


Across the aisles of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the tone of the prayers spoken aloud, the homilies offered from the pulpit at early Masses, and the comments from those who had come for the services all reflected a calm acceptance that the end of John Paul’s days was not far off.

Many of those in the pews said they were offering prayers not for miraculous recovery, but for what Catholics call the grace of an easy passing. Aida Weber, who works at an advertising agency on Madison Avenue, made it to the Cathedral just after the last mass of the morning.

"I wanted to say a prayer for the pope," Ms. Weber, of Rego Park, Queens, said. "I prayed for him not to suffer, and for him to be taken peacefully."

Rose Bella, who works for McGraw Hill, made a special effort to make Mass. "I prayed that at some point God takes him and makes him whole again," she said.

As usual, Cardinal Edward Egan, the leader of the archdiocese of New York, concelebrated the 7:30 Mass. Among the day’s scripture readings was one describing how Peter, the first pope, spoke of the stone rejected by the builders that had become the cornerstone. These words were particularly appropriate, the cardinal said, "at this time that Peter’s successor is so gravely ill."

Just as Peter had endured trials and persecution, the cardinal said, so had his successor, John Paul, nearly 2,000 years later in Poland, as that country was gripped by two totalitarian forces for much of the 20th century. The Nazis had forbidden the training of priests, Cardinal Egan said, just as Karol Jozef Wojtyla, the young man who would become Pope John Paul II, felt called to the priesthood.

"When the Nazis left, in came the communists," Cardinal Egan said. "Again, he stood up to them." He recalled an attack on people in a Polish town who had defied a ban on the building of new churches that had been issued by the Communist authorities. Karol Wojtyla, then a bishop, had rushed to the town when some of those involved in the construction project were murdered, the cardinal said.

"He stood up with the people and preached with them," said Cardinal Egan. He prayed later that the faithful would see the pope’s physical struggles as part of the fabric of redemptive suffering offered by Jesus.

At the end of the Mass, the cardinal blessed the congregation, urging them to "go now, in love and peace to serve the Lord, and to keep the Holy Father, John Paul the second, in our love and prayers."

On the steps of the Cathedral, Brian Flanagan paused to recall that at the time of the Solidarity workers’ revolt in Poland, he had been a foreign services officer, stationed in Moscow. He had watched John Paul lend his voice and authority to the Solidarity movement, the first cracks in the Soviet bloc.

"I was thinking as I came in this morning – the guy, he’s a beacon of morality for us, and he has been all along," Mr. Flanagan said. "At the time of Solidarity, there was nobody who had a clearer understanding of what was going on. The certitude, the quiet leadership – you can see it all now."

Like many of those in the church, Mr. Flanagan, who now works for the Metrotech Business Improvement District in Brooklyn, said he routinely attends early Mass. At each of the three morning Masses, about 100 people or fewer took communion. The pope’s failing health was seen not as a spiritual crisis, but a moment for which Catholics have lived their lives, and it was folded into the ordinary routines of the Cathedral, even as television news crews had set up cameras in a death watch.

By long custom, the early weekday Masses in Catholic churches move at lightning pace, with prayers recited quickly, homilies shortened, and hymns left unsung. This allows workers to get to their jobs on time. With the church now at the height of its liturgical calendar as the faithful celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the grand main altar of the Cathedral was ablaze with flowers, sprays of lilies and pink carnations.

Tourists drifted in and out of the Cathedral, gazing at its soaring arches and vast, vaulted recesses. In a group of young exchange students – from dozens of countries in Europe and Asia – many said they had come to the Cathedral for sightseeing, and were unaware of the pope’s condition. One of the few who had heard he was ill, Yuka Yamaoka, 17, of Japan, said she hoped that no extraordinary measures would be used to prolong his life, unaware that the pope apparently has declined to return to the hospital. "He’s getting surgery or something, he is getting tubes," she said. "Maybe everybody wants him to live longer."

Not so, said Maria Ricca of Yonkers, who had come to mass "to pray for my health, to pray for the Pope, and to pray for the peace that he worked for."

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