Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Catholic World News News Feature

Final days, last words of Pope John Paul II September 20, 2005

The Vatican has published an official account of the final days of Pope John Paul II.

In a supplement to the official Acta Apostolicae Sedis, dated April 17 but released for sale at the Vatican bookstore on September 19, the account covers the period that began with the first announcement that the late Pope was troubled by "flu-like symptoms" on January 31, and ended his funeral.

The 220-page account, which is being sold at a price of 9 euros ($11), is written primarily in Italian, with some passages of Latin included. Acta Apostolicae Sedis is an official gazette for the Holy See, consisting of official notices edited by the Secretariat of State. There are 12 issues each year, with an annual index. Ordinarily the publications are in Latin, although special editions are occasionally presented in other languages.

After the death of a Roman Pontiff, the Vatican Secretary of State typically prepares an account of his last living moments, which is then published as a special issue of Acta Apostolicae Sedis. In this case, however, the account goes beyond previous precedents by offering a chronicle of the last several weeks of the Pope's life as well. A note at the conclusion of the account explains that this fuller story was prepared in response to numerous requests-- from Church figures and the public at large-- for more complete information about Pope John Paul's final days.

The Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS) account describes the last actions of the deceased Pope and includes his will and spiritual testament, the official announcement of his death, and a story on the funeral and listing of the official delegations in attendance. All of the messages of condolence that poured into the Vatican from government and religious leaders are included. The early part of the account discloses that during his first trip to the hospital early in February 2005, when he was treated for acute respiratory problems, Pope John Paul was tested for other medical problems before his release. After his return to the Vatican, the respiratory problems continued, but were controlled by the medical staff that was now installed in the apostolic palace. Although the Vatican did not release any medical information about the Pope's condition between his two stays in the hospital, the AAS chronicle confirms the widespread understanding that his respiratory problems remained severe.

On March 6, Pope John Paul celebrated Mass in a private chapel set up at his hospital room, and "pronounced the formula for the final blessing with a very feeble voice," AAS records. Again this account matches the reports of several cardinals who had been present on that occasion, and testified that the Pope had regained his ability to speak, albeit with difficulty. After his second hospitalization, John Paul II did not speak in public until March 13-- although a brief recording of his voice was made public two days earlier.

AAS confirms that after his return to the Vatican, the Pope was under constant medical attention. His recovery was complicated, however, because of his continued difficulty in swallowing, which caused problems in breathing and made it difficult for him to take adequate nourishment. Here too the AAS chronicle-- which provides details about the medical team assembled around the ailing Pontiff-- confirms that general knowledge that circulated at that time, although the Vatican was close-mouthed about the Pope's condition.

On March 31, shortly after 11 in the morning, while he was in his chapel to celebrate Mass, the Holy Father suffered a severe episode, which was followed by a spiking of his body temperature. At this point, the AAS account makes it clear, officials of the papal household realized that John Paul II was near death. However, no official announcement was made until that evening. "The explicit wish of the Holy Father to remain at his residence was respected," AAS recounts.

Cardinal Marian Jaworski of Lviv administered the last rites at 7:17. But Pope John Paul remained conscious and composed, and joined in the celebration of Mass on the morning of the next day: April 1. However, the raging fever led to a condition of septic shock and the "complete breakdown of the cardio-vascular system" during that day. That evening, as thousands of young people gathered in St. Peter's Square to pray for the dying Pontiff, John Paul said the words that his spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls reported at that time: "I have searched for you, and now you have come to me, and I thank you."

Early on Saturday, April 2, Pope John Paul was slipping in and out of consciousness, AAS reports. Mass was celebrated at his bedside, and he received the Secretary of State for a final time late in the morning. At about 3:30 in the afternoon, speaking in Polish in a feeble voice, John Paul said, "Let me go to the Father's house." Those were his last words, AAS discloses for the first time.

Early on Saturday evening the Pope lapsed into a coma, and monitors showed a sharp drop in his vital functions. As the Pontiff breathed his last, the first prayers of the feast of Divine Mercy were said at his bedside. At 9:27-- after having run an electrocardiogram for more than 20 minutes, in accordance with the Vatican norms-- Dr. Renato Buzzonetti, the Pope's longtime personal physician, formally declared the Pope dead.