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Pope’s precarious position provokes worry

Mary Kate Malone | Friday, April 1, 2005

Reports that the pope received his last rites surfaced Thursday afternoon, causing Catholics throughout the world to doubt the stability of the 84-year-old pontiff’s health.

Pope John Paul II developed a high fever Thursday due to a urinary tract infection, according to the Vatican. The complication occurred just one day after he began receiving nutrition from a feeding tube.

Notre Dame associate professor of law Vincent Rougeau said the administration of the last rites does not necessarily indicate that the pope’s condition is deteriorating to the point where death is inevitable.

Many Catholics mistakenly believe the last rites are carried out just days before one’s death, Rougeau said. However, changes in Catholic doctrine have redefined the scope of the sacrament to include not only the dying, but also the sick – the sacrament is now more commonly referred to as the sacrament for the sick and dying.

“The big thing to remember here is that the Church has changed the sacrament to include the sick and dying, so it is no longer associated with death,” Rougeau said. “The last rites means that he is gravely ill but not that his death is imminent.”

The pope has received the sacrament once before, after he was shot by a would-be assassin in 1981.

The Vatican has been brief in its supply of information on the pope’s state. Even University President Father Edward Malloy said he felt uncertain about the exact condition of the pope.

“It sounded like he was taking a turn for the worse,” Malloy said. “It’s awfully hard to sort out the degree of severity.”

Evening vespers were held at Corby Hall for John Paul II Thursday night, Malloy said.

Rougeau said John Paul II’s resilience – rumors of his impending death have been circulating for years – could be viewed as a manifestation of his firm belief in the sanctity of human life from conception until natural death.

“The pope has tried to get Catholics to be aware that suffering is a part of life,” Rougeau said. “Life is not meaningless because we are in pain. We need to respect people at all stages.”

The pope’s precarious state has also sparked debate about the existence of his living will, a document that would outline whether or not he wants measures to be taken to sustain his life should he reach a near-death state. Catholics are only left to speculate since the Vatican has remained silent on the subject.

“There is some controversy between theologians and the Vatican on the issue of euthanasia,” Rougeau said. “But in the pope’s case, unless it was pretty definite that there was no possibility of recovery, and even then I’m not sure, I think he would be against not taking measures to sustain his life.”

Nevertheless, measures are being taken on campus to prepare for the possibility of the pope’s death.

Father Richard Warner, director of Campus Ministry, said he has met with other priests to plan a special mass that will take place if the pope passes on.

“We will have a celebration of his life,” Warner said. “It will be a mass in gratitude for his service to the Church. We will have cards with his picture.”

Warner said he predicts such a mass will attract not only the Notre Dame community but also residents of the greater South Bend area.

Several Notre Dame students, like many Catholics the world over, are worried that the preparations like the last rites, though precautionary in nature, indicate the pope is getting weaker as the days pass.

The news reached students quickly Thursday as freshman Kathryn Balbierz received an e-mail from her mother informing her of the situation.

“My mom emailed me and told me, and I just think it’s really sad,” Balbierz said. “He is a great person and we should say some prayers.”

Junior Jennifer De Angelo attended a Mass said by John Paul II while studying abroad in Rome last semester and even then was struck by his poor health.

“I went to mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. When I saw him, he was in bad shape,” De Angelo said. “He could hardly speak, and would leave out words because he didn’t have the strength to say them. In the shape I saw him, I think he will pass away soon.”

But for non-Catholics on campus, the condition of the pope, though troubling, does not stir the same emotions.

“Honestly, I’m not Catholic,” sophomore Mary Boyer said. “I haven’t been following the story and since I don’t know much I don’t have the same reaction as my friends. They’re sad, because this is the only pope they’ve ever known.”

University President-elect Father John Jenkins, having heard the news of the last rites earlier in the day, reflected on the need for faith in times of uncertainty.

“It’s just a somber time,” Jenkins said. “What can you do? You wait, and you hope. You commend it to God’s will.”