Pope’s Last Will and Testament Indicates He Mulled Retirement
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TERENCE SMITH: John Allen, welcome to the broadcast. Tell us what you can about the pope’s will that was released today.
JOHN ALLEN: Probably the first thing to understand is this is not a will in the conventional sense. Popes don’t own property to speak of. So it’s not like John Paul was assigning his assets. This is more akin to a kind of final spiritual testimony, a final spiritual message, if you like.
Probably the two items of greatest journalistic interest: One, the pope apparently changed his mind somewhat over the years about where he wished to be buried. In his early comments, and bear in mind, this will was pieced together over a number of years. The first entry dates are 1979, and the last one, 2000.
Early on he apparently was leaning towards being buried in his native Poland. But in his final word on the subject he actually left that decision, rather, in the hands of the College of Cardinals. And as we know, they have decided that he, along with 148 of the 263 popes of the Catholic Church, will actually be interred in St. Peter’s Basilica.
The other point is that in the year 2000, as John Paul had turned 80, he had a keen sense that death was perhaps approaching. He actually reflected that his time may be drawing near, and that led him into a kind of taking stock of the events of his life, thanking God not only for events of his personal biography, but for what had happened in the world.
For example, the pope thanks God that the Cold War ended without the nuclear holocaust that many of us had feared in that period. I was struck by the deeply spiritual tone of the message, and also by the fact that this is a pope who obviously lived over the 26 years of his pontificate with a very keen sense that death was always a possibility. And this seems to be a product of his prayer, his spiritual reflection on that subject.
TERENCE SMITH: In fact, didn’t he write about his amazement at his own survival of the 1981 assassination attempt?
JOHN ALLEN: Yes, that’s right. Of course this is not the only place the pope has reflected on that topic. And I think that actually is a key that unlocks much of John Paul’s thought. Of course, that assassination attempt occurred on May 13 of 1981, which is the feast day of our Lady of Fatima.
And the pope was convinced that the Madonna of Fatima had actually intervened to alter the flight path of that bullet to save his life. We know that because on May 13, 1982, he actually went to Fatima in Portugal and deposited the bullet that doctors had taken from his abdomen in the statue of the virgin there to thank her.
And I think that helps explain his absolute confidence that the events of his life and his pontificate were unfolding in accordance with the divine plan. Among other things, it explains why it never entered his mind to resign.
TERENCE SMITH: You mentioned that he had no material goods to pass on. But he did have some directions, did he not, about his personal papers, and about how he should be buried?
JOHN ALLEN: Yes, that’s right. He asked that his personal papers be destroyed, that the other small things he had accumulated over the course of his life would be, since he has no close living relatives, would be distributed according to the wishes of his intimate collaborator and close friend Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz.
Like Paul VI before him, John Paul also indicated his wish to be buried in simple earth. As you may know, most of those 148 popes in the grotto beneath the main floor of St. Peter’s Basilica are interred in a sarcophagus.
And this, of course, in the ancient world, was a sign of the high and mighty. But Paul VI wanted to emphasize the humility and service of the papal office, and asked simply to be buried in the ground with a stone tablet above his grave, and John Paul II has followed his lead.
TERENCE SMITH: Now, I gather the doors to the Basilica have closed. I suppose preparations for tomorrow’s funeral must be under way.
JOHN ALLEN: That’s right. I mean, in addition to being a sendoff to a beloved global figure, tomorrow’s event also promises to be probably the largest funeral Mass in human history in terms of attendance.
I think probably the only thing that would compare would be the funeral mass of the late Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, where also millions of people turned out. It will have more than 200 heads of state including, of course, President George Bush of the United States, and former Presidents Bush and Clinton.
It is a massive, massive logistical and security enterprise. And certainly around here at the Vatican, it is a state of high alert. In the end, all of this, of course, is intended to facilitate the celebration of, what is at its core, a very simple funeral rite.
After all, the message of this funeral rite is that death does not have the last word in Christian belief, that there is life beyond. And that will certainly be the strong message of this ritual tomorrow.
TERENCE SMITH: What happens after the funeral? I know that the conclave to select a new pope is not until April 18. So is it simply a period of mourning, or is there more going on than that?
JOHN ALLEN: Well, two things are going on at once. There is an extended period of mourning, the so-called novemdieles, or nine days’ prescribed ritual period of mourning, which begins tomorrow with the funeral Mass.
There will be other Masses celebrated every day during this period, including, by the way, one on next Monday which will be led by the former cardinal archbishop of Boston, Bernard Law, who is now, of course, the archpriest of one of the major basilicas here in Rome. But in addition to that, the politics of the conclave are also underway.
That, however, does not unfold in public view. This is something very private and discreet, as cardinals together in twos and threes and tens and twenties, over dinner, over breakfast, in informal moments, to talk about the issues facing the church, the profile needed of a leader to meet those challenges, and ultimately, of course, who that leader might be.
TERENCE SMITH: And the people you talk to there, John, is there expectation that it will go back to the tradition of an Italian pope, or is it simply impossible to say?
JOHN ALLEN: Well, I think the lead has to be that it’s impossible to say. Certainly there are many Italians and I think a few Italian cardinals that, all things considered, would like to see an Italian pope.
Bear in mind, the pope is also the bishop of Rome; he is the leader of this local church. And there is a certain argument that a man who speaks that language and comes from that culture would have an advantage as pastor.
On the other hand, most of the cardinals I talk to tell me they’re not really thinking in terms of geography; they’re thinking in terms of the best man, which means any of those 117 cardinals who are eligible to participate, though not all may be here for reasons of ill health, any of them is a potential pope. That makes this race much more wide open and more difficult to handicap.
TERENCE SMITH: All right, John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, thanks very much.
JOHN ALLEN: It’s a pleasure.