Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The contrasting deaths of two Pontiffs

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 29, 2011

Exactly 33 years have passed since we heard the shocking news that Pope John Paul I had died, just 33 days after being elected to Peter’s throne. I still vividly recall how I learned about the death of the “Smiling Pope.” I had arrived at a sleepy railroad station to catch an early-morning train, and I saw the screaming newspaper headline: “Pope is Dead!” I thought that was curious; why would the kiosk still be keeping around newspapers that were nearly two months old? Only when I looked a second time did I realize that the new Pope had died.

My experience was not terribly unusual, I suspect. We were all caught completely off guard. We were only just getting to know Pope John Paul I. He was relatively young (65 when he was elected), and lively, with a refreshing public manner and an engaging smile. Then suddenly he was gone, without warning, before we really knew what to make of him.

The death of his successor could not have been more different. Pope John Paul II had left his indelible stamp on the papacy, the Church, and the world at large. No other man in history had been so highly visible for so many years. We felt that we knew him well; hundreds of millions of us loved and revered him. As the years passed we watched him grow old. We saw his health deteriorate, and by early in 2005 we knew that the end was near.

During those unforgettable last days of the beloved Pontiff’s life, the attention of the whole world was riveted on St. Peter’s Square. This too was unprecedented: to have an international audience of countless millions watching, waiting, praying, as one man’s life ebbed away.

Pope John Paul I never had time to make his mark on the papacy. His death came quickly, and presumably without much suffering. Pope John Paul II, on the other hand, had become the most influential figure of his time, leaving an immense historical legacy. As he grew old and ill, he made a conscious choice to let the public observe his suffering, as his final, eloquent public testimony.

This week I have been putting the finishing touches on a new eBook, The Witness of Suffering, that recounts the last weeks in the life of Pope John Paul II. It’s a moving story to recall: the story of a saintly pastor of souls, who gave up his life for the Church in a very dramatic fashion. Recalling those last days of his life once again, I am struck anew by the sense that I think we all had at the time: that a memorable life was ending, certainly; but also that a memorable death was occurring. The Pope’s final struggle, played out on the public stage, was his last gift to us. When the crowd in St. Peter’s Square was informed of the Pope’s death, there was a ripple of applause, in recognition that this drama, too, had been a success.

The Witness of Suffering will be available soon—within the next few days—on our new eBook store. It tells the story simply, by collecting our news stories from those weeks of early 2005 leading up to the death of Blessed John Paul II. With the help of this book you can relive a series of events that, I suspect, none of us will ever forget. Nor should we.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Lucas - Oct. 05, 2011 8:37 AM ET USA

    Pope John Paul II had a lasting impact on my life after I returned to the practice of my Catholic Faith in 1980. I was especially struck by the powerful witness of his final weeks and his funeral and the 'striking simplicity' of his coffin. In the following year, I built myself an identical coffin which now rests on a shelf in my workshed and is a gentle reminder that I too will have a final week and a final day. It helps in some ways to keep life in perspective. Paul - Toowoomba - Australia

  • Posted by: bsp1022 - Oct. 05, 2011 3:16 AM ET USA

    I have it - April 2, 2005 remembered and underscored in my personal calendar. Since that date, I have read and collected everything I could find about his death. I'll assume this monograph will be as good as what I routinely find here... 157 pages of your finest effort. I have some very strong opinions [as Dr. Mirus can tell you], no less on this in particular.