Aging Gracefully: John Paul II Presses Ahead

An Ailing Pope Who Isn´t Afraid of Wrinkles

ROME, JUNE 8, 2002 ( Hardly a press story comes out of the Vatican these days without a mention of John Paul II´s health. More than a few use the topic, legitimate in itself, as a springboard for judging what´s best for the Church.

The coverage of the Pope´s recent trip to Azerbaijan and Bulgaria is a case in point. A May 28 report in The Times of London said many in the Catholic Church — no names were mentioned — think that John Paul II´s leadership is now “grotesque.”

“His pilgrimages look like the last gasp of a fading figure of history who cannot see that his achievements are behind him and he should leave the stage,” reporter Richard Owen wrote. He claimed the 82-year-old Pope is incapable of dealing with the Church´s current problems.

Further on, it becomes clearer what Owen really wants. He complains of a Vatican that is “hermetically sealed” and he expresses hope for “perhaps a Latin American or African Pope” who “would bring some fresh air.”

Perhaps he should be careful of what he wishes for. Sydney Archbishop George Pell noted in a speech, reported in the May issue of AD2000, that theologian Hans Küng and some friends wrote (coincidentally) to The Times on the death of Pope Paul VI. They described the Pope they wanted: non-Italian, preferably not from the First World, aware of social issues, an intellectual, and theologically minded. “With the election of Pope John Paul II they got exactly what they asked for and the opposite of what they wanted — which was a mandate for further liberalization,” wryly noted Archbishop Pell.

Another example comes from the June 10 issue of Time magazine. The article relies on conveniently anonymous sources to describe the Pope´s daily schedule. “The Cardinals just bring him papers and say, ´Sign this,´” a “Vatican insider” is quoted as saying.

The article portrays a Rasputin-like figure of Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Pope´s private secretary, who now supposedly controls what decisions the Pope is making and who, according to Time, has “a degree of power only dreamed of by even the most ambitious prelates.”

How does this square with firsthand reports of those who recently met with the Pope? A May 28 report by Zenit quoted the papal nuncio in Bulgaria, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, as saying, “Despite the evident physical limitations, the Pope not only has great spiritual energy but also an intellectual lucidity that has impressed me very especially.”

On May 24, Zenit reported on comments by a Polish film director and papal friend, Krzysztof Zanussi. He had met with John Paul II recently and said that it is easier to see his “lucidity and sharpness” in private than in public. “The Pope is not a manager who, grown weak and infirm, is replaced because it is believed that he is unable to handle a business´s interests effectively,” Zanussi said.

The Pope himself has declared his desire to press on despite his physical ailments. During his stay in Azerbaijan, he declared: “As long as I have breath within me I shall cry out: ´Peace, in the name of God!´”

The Botox generation

John Paul II´s unwillingness to hide his age carries a countercultural twist nowadays. Growing numbers of people can´t even accept the idea of having a few wrinkles. Numerous articles in recent weeks, for example, have analyzed the spreading use of Botox injections to smooth the brow and reduce signs of advancing years.

Botox is an extremely diluted solution of botulinum toxin type A, which in a more concentrated form is one of the deadliest poisons known, as Newsweek explained in its May 13 issue. Botulinum is a paralytic which, injected into the muscles controlling brow furrows, temporarily causes the former to relax, smoothing out the skin above.

In the United States more than 1.6 million cosmetic Botox procedures were performed last year, on about 850,000 patients, according to figures from medical associations. The drug´s manufacturer, Allergan, says sales of Botox for all uses were $310 million last year, a third of which was probably for cosmetic uses. The company expects the cosmetic use to grow by 25% to 35% this year, helped by a $50 million advertising campaign.

The use of Botox to eliminate frown lines received U.S. government approval, the Associated Press reported April 15. The Food and Drug Administration approved medical use of Botox years ago and has now formally approved its cosmetic use.

Vanity comes at a price. The treatment costs between $250 and $1,000, and must be repeated every three to six months, the Wall Street Journal explained April 16. People are now organizing Botox parties, complete with champagne and group injections, discounted to only $250 per person.

Botox isn´t the only example of how baby boomers fear the signs of aging. In 2000, some 7.4 million Americans decided that cosmetic surgery was the answer to one perceived bodily imperfection or another, the Christian Science Monitor reported Feb. 21. Anti-aging treatments and products are now a $30 billion business.

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, cosmetic plastic-surgery procedures nearly tripled between 1992 and 2000. And it´s not just older women who are opting for surgery: 35- to 50-year-olds now account for close to half the patients, with men accounting for more than a million procedures in 2000.

Nor is it a practice restricted to the United States. According to a BBC report last March 11 figures for the year 2000 showed strong demand for cosmetic surgery in Brazil and Great Britain, with the Botox injection being the most popular procedure in the United Kingdom.

Obsession with eternal youth

Attempts to escape the effects of aging are nothing new. What is new, however, according to an April 7 article in the British daily Observer, is that “The genuine ability to combat the appearance of ageing is coming at a time when the population is itself ageing, increasingly affluent and more than ever obsessed with the cult of youth.”

Botox is only one of a series of measures being used by those seeking to reverse the course of nature. Facial injections of other chemical substances are available and patients´ own fat can even be transferred to parts of the face. Lasers are also being used, to stimulate the cells that produce natural collagen, which fills out sagging flesh and reduces wrinkles. In other procedures, lasers “sandblast” the skin, taking off the outer layers.

The contrast between John Paul II´s physical vigor at the start of his pontificate and his present state is certainly notable. But with a still-lucid mind and undiminished spirit, his ability to continue as Christ´s vicar is not in doubt to those who know him best. His struggle with the physical effects of aging is also a valuable lesson to a society that finds it hard to accept growing older.

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