A Little Cyrenean in the Footsteps of the Great Cyrenean John Paul II
Dr. Renato Buzzonetti, Chief Pontifical Physician, Director of the Directory of Health and Hygiene of the Vatican City State for almost 40 years, personal physician of John Paul II, tells of his nearly 27 year professional and spiritual adventure, which began December 29, 1978, in this exclusive interview with “Totus Tuus”.
Dr. Buzzonetti, this past April 2nd, the diocesan phase of the Cause for Beatification and Canonization of the Servant of God John Paul II, to whom you were tied personally and professionally, was closed. As we await his beatification, what can you share about your personal experience of the holiness of Pope Wojtyła?
Leafing through the pages of the book of the life of John Paul II, in which I was allowed to participate, I consider those of his prayer to be the most important pages. Anyone who was near him learned first and foremost how to pray. He was a man of immense charity, had a versatile personality anchored by faith “of steel,” who lived out an intimate union with the Lord. He prayed even in the most unthinkable moments, like when he entered for the first time in the [General Assembly] Hall of the United Nations, holding a rosary in his hand: like me when I went for a few exams. He lived abandoning himself totally to the will of God. A truly heroic moment was the one following the tracheotomy in March 2005. Waking up from the anesthesia, John Paul II could no longer speak. He wrote in an unsteady hand and in Polish “What have you done to me! ... But totus tuus.”
In your opinion, which is the best “page” of the public testimony of John Paul II’s love for life?
The pilgrimage to Lourdes, August 14th and 15th, 2004. It was his last international voyage. He was suffering, severely impaired in his movements and in his gestures, constrained to interrupt the reading of his invocation to Mary in front of the grotto of Massabielle... but he did not withdraw; he did not back out of his duty as a Son and as a Pastor. Infirmed among the infirmed, he wanted to participate in the traditional acts of the great Marian pilgrimage. He did not hide his powerlessness in being ill, without conventional modesty, with the simplicity of a just man he declared his faithfulness to life, a gift from God, which was to be lived to the very end, without escapes and without compromises. He completed a grand catechesis that celebrated illness accepted in the footsteps of the Crucified, not as a humiliation and a condemnation, but as a gift of grace and a supreme hymn to human life, becoming a sign of contradiction and of hope.
Could you read us an unpublished page from the book of the life of Pope Wojtyła?
The first years of his pontificate, when he would receive a compliment in private, he would often respond, “I don’t deserve it.” It was something he heard a child from a Roman parish, to whom he had paid a complement, reply. I remember a funny incident in connection to this phrase. At the end of his apostolic voyage to Goa, where the glorious tomb of Saint Francis Xavier is, during dinner with the local bishops, the Patriarch gave a speech in praise of the Pope. To the series of compliments addressed to his person John Paul II responded with immediate naturalness “I don’t deserve it,” up until the point in which he heard a compliment addressed to him in as much as successor of Peter. Then he replied “I deserve it.”
On occasion in the papers or on television there was emphasis on the news of “quick escapes” from the Vatican...
During the first years of his Pontificate this meant trips that comprised of long treks or many hours of skiing. As the Holy Father got older, the walks on foot became shorter and the excursions, after a quick ride in the car, finished with a long rest in the shade of a tent erected in front of uplifting panoramas, at the foot of mountain peaks still covered with snow. A bagged lunch marked serene moments of conviviality with those who had accompanied us. Toward sunset and before taking the road for Rome, the Pope liked to hear songs from the mountains, sung by his small following, joined by the Vatican guards and the police escorts. The task of directing the improvised choir, with a delighted Pope looking on, fell to me.
Which of these “quick escapes” do you remember in particular?
A trip to the mountains near Arcinazzo in May of 2003. It was the time when John Paul II was having problems with his right knee. The Pope, after having asked me for some explanations on the state of his health, told me that I must “always” remain his physician. Obviously I have not forgotten that day.
Was there ever a time when managing the health of Pope Wojtyła was risky?
The day of the attempt on his life, Wednesday May 13, 1981. The greatest risk was run in deciding to bring him to [Polyclinic] Gemelli. Before getting in the ambulance, while in the foyer of the Directory of Health Services of the Vatican City State, I determined that the Pope could endure the twenty minutes needed to reach “Gemelli.” In fact, he was conscious and obeyed elementary commands. Furthermore, given the gunshot wound to the abdomen and knowing that, at that time, Santo Spirito Hospital, the one closest to the Vatican, was not sufficiently equipped, I gave the order to head for Polyclinic Gemelli, in agreement with the Secretary [of State].
Speaking of the attempt on his life, what was it that John Paul II said to you about it?
He spoke to me about it several times, almost smiling, saying, “That man wanted to know the third secret of Fatima by force,” alluding to Alì Agca.
After the Angelus of Sunday January 30, 2005, recited with difficulty by John Paul II, you had to make another important decision...
The precarious condition of the Holy Father’s health was being complicated by an acute laringotracheitis with the complication of laringospasm, which had dangerously reduced his respiratory space. The evening of February 1st the condition of the patient worsened in only a few hours. The hospitalization was inevitable. “Now or never,” I said, while the others beat round the bush. The Pope quickly grasped the crux of the problem and said “Yes, let’s go.”
Could you explain the significance of John Paul II’s “Let me go to the Lord...”?
These words are the immediate translation of the ones John Paul II pronounced in Polish with an almost imperceptible voice around 3:30 PM on Saturday, April 2nd. They were his “consummatum est” (Jn 19:30). They were not a passive surrender to the illness or an escape from the suffering; rather they expressed the awareness of a profound via crucis that was by now approaching its final goal: the encounter with the Lord. They were, then, words of expectation and hope, of renewed and definitive abandonment in the hands of the Father. At the same time we doctors had to admit that the illness was inexorably progressing toward the final phase of its course. Ours had been a battle waged with patience, humility, and prudence, extremely difficult because we were intimately convinced that it would conclude with a defeat, but it was oriented by the total and merciful respect for the man who was suffering. There was not the so-called use of excessive measures.
In the dedication of the book “Let Me Go,” of which you are the author of the chapter “The Days of Suffering and Hope,” you wrote, “My chapter also tells, in filigree, the story of a little Cyrenean following in the footsteps of a great Cyrenean...”
For the Christian doctor, often times an unknown, strained, and silent Cyrenean, the agony of a person is an icon of the agony of the Lord. Every person has his wounds, has his crown of thorns, stutters his last words, and abandons him or herself in he hands of someone who unknowingly renews the gesture of Mary, of the pious women, or of Joseph of Arimathea. The death of John Paul II was the death of a man by then stripped of everything, who had undergone the hours of battle and of glory and who had arrived in his interior nakedness at the encounter with his Lord, to Whom he was returning the keys of the Kingdom. In that moment of pain and of stupor, I had the sensation of finding myself on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias. All of history seemed to be at a standstill while Christ set about to call the new Peter. The [flat] isoelectric line of the electrocardiogram registered the end of the great earthly adventure of a man already considered a saint by the people of God, but it seemed to delineate a new horizon open to a future which had already begun...
photo courtesy of religion.orf.at