ROME - The final act of Pope John Paul II's pontificate is difficult to watch, but he is determined that the whole world see it.
The drama will be played out again this Holy Week, the most important week of the liturgical calendar, as the pontiff, barely able to speak or stand, struggles to demonstrate that he is able to lead his flock of 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.
The Vatican has promised only that on Easter the pope will offer a televised blessing from the papal apartments. By lowering expectations, the papal handlers seem to be calculating that any words or appearances beyond that will be interpreted as a sign that the pope's health is improving.
But the reality, obvious to all, is that the 84-year-old pope is dying, and in the act of dying he is adding yet another chapter to a legacy that already is larger than life.
The Parkinson's disease that eats away at his vitality has left him hunched and immobile. His hands tremble uncontrollably. His great Slavic head slumps to his chest; his face, drained of color and expression, is a mask of pain. His words are unintelligible. He drools, and a bevy aides attends to him with tissues.
His most recent appearance, by live video Thursday, lasted less than a minute. He appeared gaunt and did not speak.
In a global culture that worships youth and beauty and politely averts its eyes from the wrinkled and infirm, the pope is an anomaly.
"When public figures get old and start to decay, they tend to step off the public stage," said John Allen, author of several books on the papacy and Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. "When we hear the news of some old celebrity's death, most of the time we say, 'Gee, I didn't know he was still alive.' That won't happen in the case of John Paul II."
Indeed, the pope has made a conscious decision to make his suffering and death a public testament. It has become his personal Calvary, to unite "my own sufferings with those of Christ," he wrote Friday in his annual message to priests.
Pope John Paul II's life "is the kind ... we would tend to marginalize today, but the pope is putting himself front and center, before the TV cameras, before the eyes of the world," said the Rev. John Wauck of the Santa Croce Pontifical University in Rome.
Pope John Paul's reasoning is hardly a mystery.
"The pope thinks the most effective thing a human being ever did on this Earth was to die on a cross," Wauck said.
An actor in his youth, a man of athletic vitality and striking good looks when he assumed the throne of St. Peter more than 26 years ago, Karol Wojtyla wouldn't be human if he didn't take some pride in his physical appearance or feel embarrassed by the ravages of his illness. Yet he soldiers on.
"Think of how that must hurt," Wauck said. "You couldn't do it unless you had arrived at perfect spiritual humility."
The redemptive power of physical suffering has been central to Pope John Paul's theology long before his present illness.
"When the body is gravely ill, totally incapacitated, and the person is almost incapable of living and acting, all the more do interior maturity and spiritual greatness become evident," he wrote in Salvifici Doloris, his 1984 apostolic letter on suffering.
The pope also sees his present condition as an opportunity to reaffirm the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to contraception, abortion and euthanasia - what he calls the "culture of death."
Before his most recent hospitalization, in a letter to the Pontifical Academy for Life, the pope wrote that human dignity "endures in every moment of life, from the first instant of conception up to natural death ... [and] consequently, man must be recognized and respected in any condition of health, illness or disability."
But as the pope's physical limitations grow more pronounced, so do the questions about who is running the church.
Eamon Duffy, a Catholic historian at Cambridge University, has written that "no one with a head can fail to ask whether the Church is best served by the long infirmity of its chief pastor, or to wonder what weeds flourish around him as his energies and focus fail."
The Vatican bureaucracy has demonstrated that it can function without the active guidance of the pope. Despite Pope John Paul's best efforts, the Catholic Church remains a highly decentralized institution. "Ninety-nine percent of the decisions that matter to ordinary Catholics aren't made in Rome," said Allen, the Vatican journalist.
But critics have long complained that John Paul II, contrary to the spirit of the Vatican II reforms, has stripped power from local bishops and imposed a top-down management style.
"Under John Paul the Catholic Church has become the voice of one man in a white robe pronouncing from a pinnacle of the apostolic palace," John Cornwell, another Cambridge scholar, wrote in a new book on the papacy.
"His debility in his latter days has exposed the long-term consequences of his autocratic rule," Cornwell wrote. "[Pope John Paul II] has become a living sermon of patience and fortitude ... but the church has been run increasingly by his Polish secretary and a handful of aging reactionary cardinals."
The "Gang of Four," as some Vatican insiders have dubbed them, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger have assumed broad authority in the day-to-day management of the church.
The pope's inner circle works hard to create the impression of a fully engaged pontiff leading his church. Each day, dozens of documents go out under his name, a workload that would stagger a man half his age.
But from the viewpoint of critics, this has been an emeritus papacy for several years. They point to the Vatican's slow response to the recent pedophilia scandal in the U.S. and the muddled signals it has sent on its relations with other faiths as indicative of the lack of clear leadership at the top.
Some critics, like Cornwell, worry that a fading pope is being manipulated by men mainly interested in prolonging their own careers or advancing personal agendas.
Others take a more charitable view. "The key people have been there a very long time," Wauck, of the pontifical university, said. "And they are there to make sure that the papacy of John Paul II ends with the same tenor in which it was lived."
Would the pope resign? Several cardinals, including Sodano, have spoken publicly of the possibility.
It is unclear how many popes have resigned - perhaps as many as 10 - but the last was in the 13th century. So while the precedents are murky, canon law experts say it is permissible.
Pope John Paul II hasn't ruled out a resignation. Most observers say that as long as he remains lucid and is strong enough to muster a symbolic presence at public ceremonies, he will continue.
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