Vatican message: Pope in charge to end

"Once the prayer was over, the Pope made a very great effort and said the word, 'Amen.' A moment later he was dead."

Thus the influential Rome newspaper La Repubblica quoted the Rev. Jarek Cielecki, editor of the Vatican News Service. The Holy See seems at some pains to emphasize that the pontiff remained conscious up to the last moment of his life.

Official reports from the Vatican spokesman had reflected that concern. A bulletin last Friday, discussing John Paul II's deteriorating condition, went on to emphasize that "the Holy Father is conscious, lucid, and serene," and that he had celebrated Mass.

A statement later in the day said, "The Pope continues to remain lucid, fully aware, and I must say very serene."

And Friday evening, as conditions further worsened, "The Holy Father, with visible participation, is joining in the continual prayers of those assisting him."

The message was that he remained in charge until the end. It was patently important to the Vatican to emphasize that there had been no vacuum of authority in the Church, no inability to respond.

It was clearly a sensitive matter. In early February, almost two months earlier, there had been the unsettling remark by Cardinal Sodano, Vatican secretary of state and a potential papal candidate. He had said that the decision to resign "should be left to the conscience of the Pope." That had prompted a message from the pontiff that "I can continue to serve the church and all humanity."

Then there had been the coincidence of Terri Schiavo, dying two days before John Paul, inviting reflection about the connection.

The Vatican had taken sides in the Schiavo dispute, saying that the withdrawal of the feeding tube amounted to euthanasia. Last year, the pontiff himself said that physicians and other caregivers have a moral duty to preserve the lives of patients, even those in a vegetative state.

For the Vatican, the connection ends there. For the Vatican, even though John Paul had declined to return to the hospital, there was no question of taking the decision out of the pontiff's hands. That's why the emphasis on the Holy Father fully "there" up to the last "Amen."

Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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