Reading the wire report on Pope John Paul II's visit Wednesday to Mexico City, it is clear that retirement is not only advisable for a man his age, 82, but has become necessary. Here's what the story said:
"The pope, who suffers from symptoms of Parkinson's disease and hip and knee problems, slumped in a gilded chair placed near Juan Diego's cloak, straining to raise his head to speak."
At a time when the Catholic Church is trying to persuade its faithful and others around the world that it remains vibrant despite its many problems, foremost of which is the child abuse scandal that is rocking the American church, the vision of Christ's vicar on earth barely able to raise his head does not inspire confidence.
To be sure, the pope's mind remains as sharp as ever, as evidenced by his address Sunday to 800,000 young Catholics from 170 countries who participated in World Youth Day in Toronto. But if he cannot clearly communicate his ideas, the full impact of his message is lost. When the pope speaks, it is with the authority he derives from being the theological and moral compass of Catholicism.
John Paul II has been an active leader of the worldwide church. And while his conservatism has been a point of contention for a growing number of Catholics who believe that issues such as celibacy for priests is at the root of the church's problems, the fact remains that his presence around the globe has been inspiring and important. Young people, in particular, have come to regard him in the same way they do rock stars. His participation in World Youth Day was poignant and touching. Despite his age and his aliments, he performed admirably.
Likewise, his visits to Guatemala and Mexico as part of an 11-day pilgrimage were especially important to the indigenous Catholic populations.
However, he has run out of steam.
John Paul II was on his way back to Rome today, but in just a couple of weeks he will be on the road again, this time to his native Poland. It would be a grand gesture if he ended his four-day visit to his homeland with the announcement of his retirement.
Although the Vatican recently made it clear that the pontiff will not retire from office, discussions are already being held in Rome and elsewhere about the future direction of the church. That will depend in large part on the policies of the new pope. The person who follows in John Paul II's footsteps will undoubtedly be confronted with the still unfolding problem of sexual abuse of children and pedophilia by priests in the United States. About 300 of the 46,000 priests in this country have been taken off duty this year because of sex abuse allegations.