Shortly after the announcement of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s death, reports of his last words started to emerge. According to the testimony of a nurse who was taking care of Benedict throughout the night of his death, the pope emeritus uttered these words:
These would come to be the last comprehensible words that anyone in this world would ever hear him say. These last words were extremely fitting, if one takes into consideration Joseph Ratzinger’s life and pontificate. Still as a pope, Benedict XVI would write in his most important encyclical Deus Caritas Est:
We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John’s Gospel describes that event in these words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should … have eternal life” (3:16). In acknowledging the centrality of love, Christian faith has retained the core of Israel’s faith, while at the same time giving it new depth and breadth. The pious Jew prayed daily the words of the Book of Deuteronomy which expressed the heart of his existence: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might” (6:4-5). Jesus united into a single precept this commandment of love for God and the commandment of love for neighbour found in the Book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (19:18; cf. Mk 12:29-31). Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 Jn 4:10), love is now no longer a mere “command”; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us.
— Deus Caritas Est, 1
In these words it is possible to encapsulate Benedict XVI’s whole pontificate and the central core of the Christian message.
Knowing this, one may ask: what were the last words of other popes? And what can we learn from these words?
Pope St. John Paul II
Unlike Benedict, who freely resigned when he perceived his health deteriorating, his predecessor’s last years on the See of Peter were marked by his increasing limitations due to Parkinson’s. On January 31, 2005, John Paul II was rushed to the hospital due to flu symptoms. The pontiff would require a tracheostomy some days later.
On March 27, Easter Sunday, the pontiff appeared in public for the last time. He struggled to speak to the crowd at St. Peter’s Basilica, but his tracheostomy did not allow him to do so. John Paul II ended up merely blessing the pilgrims with a hand gesture and returning inside.
The pope would die a few days later, in April 2, after suffering septic shock due to a urinary tract infection. According to those who were around that day, the last known words John Paul II uttered were in Polish:
In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II had coined the term “culture of death” to signify modern society’s acceptance of such evils as abortion and euthanasia. However, in the same encyclical, the pontiff would teach:
Euthanasia must be distinguished from the decision to forego so-called “aggressive medical treatment”, in other words, medical procedures which no longer correspond to the real situation of the patient, either because they are by now disproportionate to any expected results or because they impose an excessive burden on the patient and his family. In such situations, when death is clearly imminent and inevitable, one can in conscience “refuse forms of treatment that would only secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life, so long as the normal care due to the sick person in similar cases is not interrupted”. Certainly there is a moral obligation to care for oneself and to allow oneself to be cared for, but this duty must take account of concrete circumstances. It needs to be determined whether the means of treatment available are objectively proportionate to the prospects for improvement. To forego extraordinary or disproportionate means is not the equivalent of suicide or euthanasia; it rather expresses acceptance of the human condition in the face of death.
— Evangelium Vitae, 65
John Paul II died carrying a heavy cross. He carried it with dignity, but he also carried it according to the principles of Catholic bioethics, refusing disproportionate means when his time to “go to the house of the Father” had clearly arrived.
Bld. Pope John Paul I
John Paul I’s pontificate was marked by two things: his smile (he was nicknamed “the smiling Pope”) and the shortness of his reign, lasting only 33 days. His death was sudden and unexpected, probably due to a heart attack or an embolism during the night of September 28, 1978.
Of course, the suddenness of the smiling Pope’s death makes his last words all the more chilling and foreboding. The day before, John Paul I felt some ill-disposition and chest pain, but did not pay much attention to it. Before going to bed, he greeted the nuns who took care of the household and unknowingly uttered the last words that anyone would hear him say:
Pope St. John XXIII
St. John XXIII, the pope who convoked the Second Vatican Council, was also a smiling and charismatic pope. It is no wonder then, that when news of his impending death started to spread, a big crowd would gather at St. Peter’s Square to pray for the Holy Father.
His personal secretary, Loris Capovilla, would recount John XXIII’s final moments. Seeing that he was about to pass away, Capovilla told the pope:
“There are only a few of us here in this room, but if you were to look out of your window on to the square you’d see crowds of people.”
To this, Pope John would reply:
Vb. Pope Pius XII
Pius XII was the pope that shepherded the Church throughout World War 2. However, not all totalitarian regimes collapsed after the end of this terrible war. By end of his pontificate, in 1958, the world was coalescing into two blocs, which in effect split the world in half. The Communist bloc was profoundly anti-Catholic and anticlerical. Terrible religious persecutions against the Church ensued. The Cold War—and the nuclear prospects it brought—was at hand.
On October 6, Pius XII suffered a stroke which left him paralyzed. A few days later, the pope suffered cardio-pulmonary complications of a second stroke. He would die on October 9. The pope’s last recorded words before lapsing into unconsciousness show his profound love and concern for the Church he left behind:
Pope Pius XI
Pius XI’s papacy was marked by his doctrinal developments on Church Social Doctrine. This was especially needed at his time, when totalitarian regimes were beginning to emerge and consolidate their power in Europe. Pius condemned Fascist tenets in his encyclical Non abbiamo bisogno, Nazi beliefs in his encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, and Communist ideologies in his encyclical Divini Redemptoris.
Prophetically anticipating the upcoming world war, Pius XI’s last words in 1939 were reportedly:
Pope St. Pius X
Though Pius X’s pontificate was marked by his steadfast fight against the heresy of Modernism, his last days were marked by a profound “heartbreak” for not being able to prevent the outbreak of World War 1, one month before. It is no wonder that the cause of his death would be a heart attack.
It is said that, during his final days, Pius X would often sigh “Poor children” in reference to the deaths in war. When he died, Pius X seemed to show relief that God was sparing him the suffering of living through such a terrible conflict:
Bld. Pius IX
Pius IX’s pontificate was the longest (at least in post-apostolic times), spanning 31 years. It was also a pontificate marked by severe turmoil, namely through the publication of the Syllabus of Errors, the convocation of the First Vatican Council, and the loss of the Papal States.
At the time of Pius IX’s death, the papacy was in a very weakened position. The pope, having lost his temporal territories, saw himself as a “Prisoner in the Vatican.” The Catholic Church was being undermined by modernistic and post-enlightenment ideologies. Pius IX last words, recorded by the cardinals by his side, show his concern for the state of the Church of his time.
As we move backward in time beyond the mid-19th century, objective accounts of the popes’ last words become sparser. This is even truer in more ancient times. I would like to end this article with St. Peter, the first pope, but his last words are unknown.
Tradition holds that Peter was condemned to death by crucifixion. Since he considered himself unworthy to die the same as Jesus, Peter would have asked to be crucified upside down. Still, we do not have access to his exact last words.
However, we know his last recorded words. Those are the last verses of his second epistle, written when he was about to die. Those last words encompass his life, for they are a final effort of tending to the sheep of the Lord, as Christ commissioned him to do.