JERUSALEM--"He could go any day now," an Israeli government official sighed over lunch, and who could dispute her judgment? She was talking about how sickly and feeble the pope appears these days, and she, like everybody else, was amazed that he had the strength to undertake this arduous Holy Land pilgrimage. He is stooped and weary, his speech slurred and his brow heavy from the paralyzing effects of Parkinson's. Every shuffling step the 79-year-old pontiff takes looks like excruciating labor, as if he were struggling, inch by inch, through thin air to reach the summit of an unseen mountain.

"Excruciating"--that's the key word, because when John Paul II ends his pilgrimage on Sunday with prayers at the rock upon which Jesus was crucified, he will have given every last measure of his spiritual, emotional, and physical strength, drawn from him over a lifetime of service to his Lord, to reach this literal and figurative Calvary.

"I think he's been keeping himself alive by force of will, just to get here," said a journalist who has covered the pope for years. Indeed, the pope has always talked of a Holy Land pilgrimage being his fondest dream as pontiff.

Now he has lived to make the journey. Having seen Israel, the Lord may now let his servant go in peace.

It is heartbreaking to see him now and recall the vigorous man who proclaimed to the world in his inaugural homily: "Be not afraid!" This trembling elderly bishop was the strong leader whose triumphal 1979 homecoming to his suffering Poland rallied the nation. It began with a kiss of Polish soil that would prove within a decade to have been the kiss of death for communism. This is the Holy Father who has traveled tirelessly and joyously to proclaim the good news of human dignity, salvation in Jesus, solidarity with the poor, peace on earth, and good will to men.

And now he has almost expired, but still he continues. The Mass in Bethlehem Wednesday was delayed so John Paul could add a visit to another possible baptismal site of Jesus. Why does he do it? Surely no one would begrudge him living out the rest of his years in Vatican convalescence. Surely he has earned it.

He does it, I believe, because he is utterly convicted that his life is not his own. He believes the Vicar of Christ has a ministry that spans the globe, and that he must give to God and to His people, to use Lincoln's phrase, "the last full measure of [his] devotion." The priestly life, like that of Jesus Christ, is one of service and sacrifice. If people are suffering in squalor, misery, and oppression, as in the Dheisheh refugee camp south of Bethlehem, then that's where the pope will be, no matter how weak and tired he may be.

He can't go on. He goes on.

But even John Paul knows his day is nearly done. Shmuel Hadas, Israel's first ambassador to the Vatican, told me that he invited John Paul to Israel upon their first meeting, in 1994. "He said to me, 'My predecessor Paul VI began his papacy with a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and I would like to end mine with one.'" This pope, who has always had a profoundly mystical sense of his own destiny, must know what is at hand.

And so do his people. This beloved pontiff's mortality is very much on the minds of the faithful who have traveled from the far corners of the planet to be with him here, in Jesus' homeland, on what is almost certainly his farewell tour. They know this is probably the last time we will see him outside the Vatican.

Which is not to say people are mournful. To the contrary: They rejoice in the life and teachings of this pope of the people, a pastor who journeyed exhaustingly around the world to tend his flock, a Pole who delivered his country and all of Eastern Europe from totalitarian tyranny, a world leader who encouraged the poor and oppressed by his words and presence, a bishop who reinforced and reinvigorated church teaching in an era of doubt and dissent, a prophet who spoke truth to the twin tyrannies of political ideology and materialistic individualism, and finally, in a time when, in Yeats' words, "the best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate

intensity," a man--a "mensch"--who was unafraid to witness to hope.

This sounds like a eulogy, and I don't mean it to be. However aware we pilgrims who see him here are that a world is passing by, these are the blessed of days. We still have him with us. And in a way, we always will.

Outside Bethlehem's Basilica of the Nativity, a middle-aged woman from New Jersey told me that she had been a "cultural Catholic" all her life until John Paul showed her what living faith in Christ was. She was forever changed.

The woman, whose name I didn't get, said she will be sad when John Paul dies, but that doesn't diminish the gratitude she feels today for this man.

Said another Jersey pilgrim: "He's not afraid to die, because he knows it isn't death, but a continuation of life. And you know, I'm not afraid either. John Paul taught me this. Look at the life he's lived!"

She was beaming, just beaming.

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