Last reflections

The pope's will, all 15 pages of it, has some surprises, including the revelation that he mused about resigning.

Published April 8, 2005 1:47PM (EDT)

The pope sprang another surprise in his will, published by the Vatican Thursday, disclosing that he seriously thought about resigning from the papacy in 2000. The revelation in the 15-page document contradicts the long-held supposition that he had never considered the matter, even when his health began to decline -- a view that the Vatican never discouraged. If he had decided to resign he would have been the first pope for more than 700 years to do so.

The will, written in Polish, was compiled and updated by the pope each Lent beginning in 1979, the year after he ascended to the papacy, until 2000, the year of his 80th birthday.

The last entry explains that he hoped that God "helps me to understand how long I must continue in this service to which he called me on 16 October 1978" -- the day he was elected pope. He prayed that he would have the necessary strength to continue. In the end he decided to soldier on, because divine providence had evidently saved his life for a purpose when he was shot by would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca in May 1981.

He fervently believed that he had been prevented from dying by a miracle: more prosaically by his action in leaning forward to hand back a baby girl to her mother in the crowd and Agca's hand being jogged by the nun next to him. Even so the shot missed vital organs by millimeters.

He wrote: "Divine providence saved me in a miraculous way from death. He who is the only Lord of life and death prolonged this life and in a certain sense gave me the gift of a new one. From this moment it belongs even more to Him."

The will contains reflections on world events and repeatedly commends the pope's soul to God. "I don't know when [death] will come, but like everything else I entrust even that moment into the hands of the Mother of my Master."

In an entry in 1980, at the height of the Cold War, he wrote: "The times that we live in are unspeakably difficult and disturbing. Even the life of the church has become difficult and tense ... The church is in a period of persecution that is not inferior to that of the early centuries. Indeed it exceeds them in the level of ruthlessness and hate."

By the time it came to the millennium, he was more hopeful of the new generation succeeding him.

The pope changed his mind about his funeral arrangements. At one point he wrote that the College of Cardinals should "satisfy as far as possible the desires of the Polish bishops" -- which would certainly have meant being buried in Poland. But a couple of years later he wrote that the cardinals should no longer be so obliged.

The will shows that he had few earthly possessions to leave, and focuses on his spiritual legacy. There is no surviving close family, and he bequeathed his few personal effects to his secretary and closest confidant, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, who served him for more than 40 years. He instructs that all his personal notes should be burned.

The will says: "I am not leaving behind any property ... which it should be necessary to take care of. As for those things of daily use that I needed, I ask for them to be distributed as seems opportune.

"I ask that Father Stanislaw watch over this, whom I thank for the cooperation and understanding help for so many years. All the other thanks I leave in my heart before God himself because it is hard to express them."

Archbishop Dziwisz, who is thought likely to return to Poland, is one of only two people identified in the will. The other is the former chief rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, who welcomed John Paul on his first visit to a synagogue in 1986, the first pontiff to set foot inside one.

The will ends with the words of Christ on the cross: "Into your hands I commit my spirit."

By Stephen Bates

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