A Last Audience With the Pope

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Pope John Paul II accompanied by Edmund Cardinal Szoka in 1999

Edmund Cardinal Szoka, a Polish-American who heads the government of Vatican City, was one of just four Cardinals called to the bedside of Pope John Paul II in the papal apartment on Friday. TIMEs Jeff Israely spoke at length Saturday with Szoka, 77, the former Archbishop of Detroit, as he sat in his office inside Vatican city:

TIME: Please tell us about your visit with the Holy Father.

Szoka: At about 9:20 a.m. I got a call from the Pope's personal secretary Archbishop [Stanislaw] Dziwisz, who asked if I could come at once to see the Pope.

TIME: What were you thinking when you got that call?

Szoka: My first thought was to wonder if this could be the end, if he was really dying.

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TIME: What happened when you got the Pope's apartment?

Szoka: Archbishop Dziwisz met me at the door and took me in the room. The Holy Father was lying in his bed, but they had his head propped up with pillows. There were three doctors alongside the bed and his five Polish nuns standing along the wall. [The pope] was having real trouble breathing. But he was perfectly alert. When he saw me I could tell he recognized me, it was like his eyes lit up and then he sort of bowed his head. I went and kneeled at his bedside and kissed his hand. I told him that I had said Mass for him and that the whole world was praying for him. I stayed on my knees the whole time I was in there, maybe no more than 10 minutes. But when I got up to leave, you know I'm a priest, so I'm used to blessing people, sick people. So I instinctively blessed him, and touched his head. And then he did the sign of the cross. That was a moment I will never forget.

TIME: What is the meaning in the way the Pope has faced illness?

Szoka: He's not afraid to show that he's sick. In the past, the Vatican didn't even like to admit that the Pope was even sick. They'd say he has the flu. John Paul has never tried to hide his condition.

TIME: How will John Paul be remembered?

Szoka: He's changed the way Popes act. In the past they were more distant. He had a great desire to minister to people. After him Popes cannot go back to staying inside their walls.

TIME: What characteristics should the next Pope have?

Szoka: It will have to be a Pope who wants to be among the people. But there's only one John Paul II. You can't clone a Pope.