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Deaths of a father and a Holy Father

Pope John Paul II taught us how to die.

MY FATHER succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 43. The end was particularly cruel, his body racked with chemo and his famously nimble mind mottled with morphine. He was half of what he'd been, to the casual eye.

But to his loved ones, including a parish priest and confessor who'd been through his own dark night of the soul, my father had the same value he'd always had, as a beloved child of God. In the last days, when flashes of my father's Jimmy Cagney wit and vitality emerged from the narcotic fog, Father Troy comforted him and told him that the pain would subside, that his spirit would soon be free and lifted up to paradise. But they also joked with one another, laughed, and discussed politics and movies and things that matter when you have decades of life left to live.

You might think that this would have made little difference to a man in agony. But it was hope. It was also an affirmation that, in the eyes of some, even a life in its most diminished state has inherent dignity.

This was two decades before Pope John Paul II had his own drawn-out and highly publicized physical descent. Although he died in 2005, the deterioration of his body (but never his mind) had started years before. At public events, including weekly Masses, the effects of illness were carved into his once-handsome face and vibrated in his trembling hands. He was hunched over, slow and in quite obvious pain.

But he pushed on, and he did this in great part to show us that dying is a process of living, and that we need to accept the beauty of the process and not turn our eyes away from it. Other cultures embrace aging and death with pragmatism, and don't rage against the dying of the light. We in the West, particularly in the U.S., have a desire to cover up the inconvenient vestiges of human decay, and sometimes it's done because we've little faith in the eternal nature of the invisible, unconquerable soul inside.

Father Troy showed my father that his body was dying but his mind, heart and soul were still vital, that it was these things that defined him, not his thinning hair, his sallow skin or his limbs too weak to lift.

On a much larger scale, Pope John Paul II taught us the same thing, and when his body surrendered him into God's arms, we all had an example of how to suffer with grace and hope. On the rainy day when news of the pope's death was announced, I thought back to the time when I was living in Rome. For six months in 1984, I studied at Loyola University, and every Wednesday I would take the 64 bus and be hustled through the back door to see the papal audience (it helps to make friends with the nuns at the Vatican gift shop). I would marvel at John Paul's vitality, which seemed to jump from the stage and reach out to the farthest edges of the room.

That vitality was cut short by his later illness, and people who only knew him from the later days probably could not imagine the passion and energy that marked his papacy and all those hundreds of thousands of miles he traveled to preach and teach.

But the inner spark that had nothing to do with his physicality, the glimmer in his eyes and the fire in his brain were still intact at the end. This desire to show us that there is dignity at every level of life, at every moment, is what underscores our faith. From the moment of conception to the moment our eyes are closed and then reopened to glory, we matter.

That is why he is a saint.