It is no secret that Karol Wojtyla, as a young man and even during the early years of his pontificate, was a picture of health, vigor and vitality. As an athlete skilled in soccer, swimming, canoeing and skiing, he exhibited a great physical presence.
During his papal trip to the United States in 1979, he rode through Manhattan in the back of a limousine with an opening in the roof that allowed him to be visible to the crowd from the waist up. He was in excellent physical condition, waving to the crowds with just the right amount of drama as the vehicle moved slowly along. (This was before the 1981 assassination attempt in Rome and the days of the “popemobile,” with its bulletproof glass protecting the pope.)
These are all reminders of John Paul’s healthier days when he had all the physical stamina and charm any human could want. The pope did regain—for a time—his health and vigor after recuperating from the 1981 assassination attempt.
In the early 90s, however, a series of health problems began to take their toll. In 1992, the pope had colon surgery, involving removal of a noncancerous tumor. The next year he fell and dislocated a shoulder. In 1994, he suffered a broken femur in another fall. An appendectomy followed in 1996. During these years, moreover, a Parkinson-like condition, if not the disease itself, began to reveal its visible effects.
The point of these sobering details is to show that John Paul was clearly entering the part of his life’s journey marked by failing health and suffering.
Describing the Holy Father in the fall of 1998, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger stated: “The pain is written on his face. His figure is bent, and he needs to support himself on his pastoral staff. He leans on the cross, on the crucifix….” Certainly John Paul was beginning to lean on Christ’s cross in more ways than one.