VATICAN CITY - In his final public words, written in his will and released yesterday, Pope John Paul II reflected on his life and his faith, asked the world and God to forgive him for his failings, and appeared to have contemplated stepping down in 2000.
The 15-page will was a humble epilogue to a remarkable life that this morning attracted a sea of mourners to St. Peter's Square for his funeral and final goodbye.
"I also ask prayers, so that the Mercy of God will loom greater than my weakness and unworthiness," he wrote.
Pope John Paul made his last entry in 2000, updating it in intermittent years on the occasions of Lent, the 40 days that precede Easter and the most reflective period on the Roman Catholic calendar.
In a portion written in 2000 when the effects of his Parkinson's disease were already apparent, the pope appears to have been considering retirement, a prospect he never publicly acknowledged.
"I hope that He will help me to recognize the time until when I must continue this service, to which he called me on the day of Oct. 16, 1978. I ask [Him] to call me when He wants," the pontiff wrote, then quoting Romans 14:8: "In life and in death we belong to the Lord - we are of the Lord."
"I hope too that throughout the time given me to carry out the service of Peter in the Church, the Mercy of God will lend me the necessary strength for this service," the pope wrote in Polish.
At that time, he reflected on the 1981 attempt on his life, which left him gravely wounded, and he called his saving a "miraculous" result of Divine Providence and said it had committed him to Christ all the more.
But not everyone was convinced that the pope's words should be interpreted as a consideration of stepping down.
The Rev. Keith Pecklers, a professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, said he believed the pope was simply stating that his reign would end when the "Lord claimed him."
"I think what he was saying is, 'I could resign and some people say I should, but I will know when the Lord takes me,'" said Pecklers, a Jesuit theologian.
In the will, Pope John Paul also asked the College of Cardinals to decide where his funeral would be held and where he would be buried, although the pope, an avid hiker as a younger man and a lifetime lover of the outdoors, made it clear that he wanted not to be interred above ground, but with his casket buried in the earth.
"I express the deepest faith that, despite all my weakness, the Lord will accord me every necessary grace to face, according to His will, whatever task, trial and suffering that will be demanded of His servant, during the course of my life," the pope wrote.
"I also have faith that never will it be permitted that, through my behavior, by words, actions or omissions, I betray my obligations in this holy seat of Peter."
Pope John Paul made special mention in his will of his personal secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, whom he thanked profusely for his years of service.
He also recalled various Christians and non-Christians for thanks, including Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi of Rome, who was the pope's host during the pontiff's historic visit to Rome's central synagogue in 1986.
Long ago, in 1980, the pope made clear in his will that he was prepared for his end, whenever it would come.
"Accepting this death already, I hope that Christ will give me grace for my final passage, which is [my] Easter," he wrote.