John Paul II's Last Lesson; Cryptic Warning

A Pope and the Art of Dying Well

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, NOV. 3, 2005 ( Shorter, darker days, falling leaves, the end of bird song — it is easy to understand why during November we remember the dead. Or at least we used to.

In modern times, society prefers to either poke fun at death with macabre humor or simply paper over this unavoidable fact of human existence. For hundreds of generations however, honoring the deceased has held a place of distinction in the calendar year.

Visitors to Rome marvel at families gathering together to make a trip out to the monumental cemeteries of Verano and Prima Porta. Many are taken aback in confession to receive a penance to offer prayers for the souls in purgatory. To our contemporary eyes, it comes as a shock to see skeletons as ornamental motifs or a crypt decorated in bones. We push to the margins of consciousness the thought that these bizarre images could have meaning in our day.

And yet they do. The constant reminder of human mortality in art, culture and prayer was intended to prepare the Christian for the inevitability of death, and promote awareness of the «ars bene moriendi,» the art of dying well.

When today’s society asks itself about a «good death,» the answer usually involves an attempt to control the end of one’s life, even through physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia. The Christian notion of a good death bears a fundamental difference — death not as a good end, but a good transition, a transition that requires proper acceptance and readiness.

Pope John Paul II, who never stopped teaching by example throughout his 26-year pontificate, left us one last great act in the demonstration of the Christian good death.

In September, the Holy See released the official account of the death and funeral of John Paul II. The first four pages clinically describe the ailments and activities of the last weeks of the Holy Father, from the first hospitalization on Feb. 1 to his final hours on April 2.

This short chronicle, while medically exact, does not do justice to the dramatic and heroic nature of those concluding months. Those of us living in Rome will always remember the Pope’s urgent hospitalization and the forest of film crews clustered around the clinic. Nor will witnesses ever forget his triumphant ride through the streets of Rome as he returned to the Vatican, seemingly victorious over death itself.

This extraordinary man, who had already defied society’s tendency to shun the sick by keeping up a full public schedule despite his increasingly obvious Parkinson’s disease, also showed us true dignity in death.

The Pope’s illness took a turn for the worse on Feb. 24, when he was re-hospitalized and the doctors performed a tracheotomy to ease his breathing. Although he again returned from the hospital, John Paul II was not as quick to recover as many had hoped.

One of the great magisterial moments of this period took place when the Pope was televised in his chapel on Good Friday watching the Via Crucis taking place in the Colosseum. During the last station, the world saw John Paul II embracing the cross with his cheek resting against the wood, and the witness of accepting suffering and death needed no words.

Those last private days, invisible to the thousands gathered in the square below, are described in the account as a time of prayer. After he was administered the anointing of the sick, the Pope concelebrated Mass every day and was constantly surrounded by people praying for him.

The document reveals that during the Mass for the feast of Divine Mercy «Polish hymns accompanied the celebration and blended with those of the young … gathered in prayer in St. Peter’s Square.»

In this setting, as the Mass was offered at the foot of his bed and the faithful sang outside, John Paul II died at 9:37 p.m. on April 2, 2005.

The stories of the saints highlight the moment of death and their certainty that they are going to heaven. John Paul II’s last words were «Let me go to the house of the Father.» For Christians, the end of temporal life coincides with the commencement of the eternal one.

In his final days, John Paul II taught that although science can ease the physical discomfort of death, palliative care should not be used as a cloak to mask the fact of dying. Modern technology can anesthetize the dying process, but science offers no wisdom regarding how to address the reality of death itself.

Contemporary culture concentrates on the temporal aspect of the process of dying and as a result loses sight of the eternal world that waits beyond. Christians need to remember that acceptance and preparation are the keys to facing this transition. Those skeletons that so amuse tourists serve as a stern warning: «Hodie mihi, cras tibi» — Today death strikes me, tomorrow it will be you.

* * *

No Bones About It

One of the most visited sites in Rome over the period Oct. 31-Nov. 2 is the crypt of the Capuchin church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception on Via Veneto. From Halloween to the day of the dead, tourists file in and out of the little chambers either giggling or open-mouthed in shock.

These are the typical reactions to the crypt which, instead of being decorated with frescos and colorful mosaics, is adorned with the bones of 4,000 Capuchin monks. Niches, arches, decorative motifs are all constructed out of human bones, from crania to phalanges.

No one knows exactly how this unique decorative solution came about, and as a result, much fanciful lore has sprung up about the artist. «A notorious criminal secretly hidden by the friars,» says one account. Others claim it is the work of a «grotesque hermit who was a genius.» Perhaps the most believable explanation is that of the «patience of the friars.»

The church was built for the Capuchins in 1631 and when they moved from their earlier habitation near the Trevi fountain, they brought the remains of their deceased brethren with them and arranged them in five chambers under the church.

Because of the holiness of the Capuchins and the rumor that the dirt in the crypt had been brought from the Holy Land, many Romans wanted to be buried in the crypt. Nobles, religious and children were laid side by side here for centuries.

The last burials are from 1870, when several of the papal soldiers who died defending the city from Garibaldi’s troops at Porta Pia were placed in this holy ground.

Somewhere in the late 1700s, the accumulated bones were employed for decoration and by the 19th century there were regular visitors to the crypt. A papal indulgence for those visiting the crypt was granted in 1793.

Architectural features such as arches and arcades are recognizable in the dim chambers but they are constructed out of bones, each room featuring a specific type, thigh bones, jaw bones, etc.

Intricate combinations create motifs of mortality such as hourglasses with wings or a figure of the grim reaper holding scales and clocks on the vaults. Even the prettier floral compositions caution that beauty is fleeting and just as the flower blooms, it also dies.

Several bodies also stand watch throughout the crypt. These are particularly holy Capuchins whose intact remains are witness to their certainty of bodily resurrection.

The Capuchins separated from the Franciscans in 1525, seeking to live the rule and spirit of St. Francis in a more genuine way. Taking to heart their founder’s great poem, «The Canticle of the Creatures,» which encourages all to praise God «for our sister bodily death, from whom no living man can escape,» the Capuchins tried in their crypt to represent triumph of life over death.

Using the very materials provided by death, they created a new life for these remains. The silent, hooded Capuchins standing in their arches or reclining in the niches, remind visitors, «What you are, we once were. What we are, you will be.»

* * *

Rome’s Beloved Father

Oct. 16 would have been the 27th anniversary of John Paul II’s election as Pope. To commemorate the late Holy Father, the city of Rome organized a moving tribute in the form of a photo exhibition, «Giovanni Paolo II e Roma,» showing until Jan. 8 in the Victor Emmanuel monument.

More than 400 images present John Paul II, not as the «globetrotting pope,» but as the Bishop of Rome who was just as active in his diocese as he was around the globe.

Entering the exhibit, one can hear Mozart’s Requiem playing in the background while an enormous screen runs footage of the last days of the Pope, from the vigils to the papal funeral. Hundreds of faces, tearful, prayerful and hopeful, look out as one passes.

Then one encounters a photo of young seminarian Karol Wojtyla in Rome for the first time. His student ID sits in one display case and the walls are covered with quotations from his book «Gift and Mystery» concerning the young student’s desire to «learn Rome.»

The future Pontiff learned quickly that Roma spelled backward is «amor» — love — and as Pope he declared that «the mission of Rome is love.» Love that he abundantly gave the city upon his papal election and received from his Roman flock in return.

Photo after photo record the numerous yearly appointments throughout the city, from the visit to Piazza di Spagna for the Immaculate Conception, the procession at St. John Lateran for Corpus Domini and the Via Crucis in the Colosseum.

John Paul II also visited local hospitals, prisons and schools, as well as hundreds of parishes. The pictures record historic events such as the Pope’s visit to the synagogue but also fun moments such as his playing bocce ball with a group of Romans.

I was surprised to discover that every year around Epiphany, the Pope would visit the crèche scene of the city’s street cleaners. Together they would celebrate the «Madonna della Strada» or «the Pilgrim Virgin,» one of the patronesses of Rome.

But the lion’s share of the images was of children. Representing Rome’s many different ethnicities, young people of every color and physical trait are captured laughing, praying, singing or playing with John Paul II. In these images the true role of the Pope during his 26 years in the Eternal City stands out — our Holy Father.

And as such John Paul II exhorted the Romans surprising them by using their own dialect, «Damose da fa! Volemose bene! Semo Romani!» — Let’s get to work! Let’s love one another! We’re Romans!

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at

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