Last Friday Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, announced that he is resigning due to a flare-up of chronic illness. Abe, a hawkish nationalist and close international ally of US President Donald Trump, is Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister. He had a brief, troubled stint in power in 2006-2007, then staged a comeback in 2012 and has governed the country ever since. He has dominated Japanese public life throughout his second premiership, thanks to a fractured opposition and lockstep support within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Despite scandals within his cabinet and sluggish approval ratings from the general public, his position was seen as secure and his resignation comes as a shock to Japan and to the world.
Abe has ulcerative colitis, a condition of the large intestine that causes severe pain, issues with digestion and defecation, and sometimes weight loss and anemia. It’s a chronic condition that he has lived with since at least his first stint in power in the 2000s; it was public knowledge that he wasn’t the healthiest world leader, but it was unclear until very recently just what bad shape he was in. Shinzo Abe is one of the most famous, successful, and powerful men in the world. Part of why his resignation is such a surprise is that, to be frank, we don’t always expect powerful people to prioritize their health over their power.
Abe is not a Christian—like many Japanese nationalists, he actively practices the country’s traditional religion of Shinto. However, the sudden incursion of one man’s chronic illness onto the stage of world history is an issue that has some religious significance for Christians. Our faith teaches us about human frailty and the contingency (that is, the dependence on other factors) of human affairs. Poor health, teaches the Catechism, is a universal human experience that we can respond to in many ways. “Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. It can also make a person more mature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is.” (§1501) This human condition points a Christian to Jesus the divine physician, whose miraculous healings of both body and soul are a sign of the Kingdom of God. (§1503) I don’t want to presume to tell a non-Christian like Shinzo Abe how he is to respond to his illness, but it does seem like it might be focusing him on some important things—well-being, family, and a slower pace of life, rather than golf-links diplomacy and G7 summits.
More fruitful for us as Catholics might be the examples of chronic illness that we see in the recent Popes. The modern papacy tends to be held by men of advanced age (the last time there was a Pope under 75 was immediately before John Paul II’s birthday in 1995), and people of advanced age tend to be in physical and sometimes psychological decline. Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis have both suffered from chronic illness or chronic pain during their papacies. John Paul II’s Parkinson’s disease was publicly confirmed in 2003 after having been suspected by Vatican-watchers for several years; he became a public example of enduring through intense suffering and sickness, one who was often mocked or even reviled for daring to exist in the public eye as a chronically ill person. (Abe is also coming in for mockery from politically unsympathetic quarters; a left-wing news website that I decline to specify used the tasteless and offensive pun that he is resigning because he “couldn’t stomach the job.” I myself disapprove of many of Abe’s policies and much of his ideology, but when it comes to him being mocked for being sick and for having been sick for a long time, I’m entirely on his side.)
Pope Francis rarely discusses his health and appears to be much sounder of body than John Paul II was by the end of his life. However, it is public knowledge that he has a condition called sciatica. This is a nerve condition usually related to a herniation of the spinal column; it induces severe pain in the lower back and legs. Francis chooses not to discuss his condition publicly very often, but early in his papacy he said very frankly in a press conference, “Sciatica is very painful, very painful! I don’t wish it on anyone.” Nevertheless, he comports himself as a more or less healthy person and doesn’t “look bad” in the way that John Paul II did late in his life. He seems both physically and mentally energetic, and does not slow down his schedule in the summer months to the extent that previous pontiffs have.
At the same time, Pope Francis does not hide his chronic pain or the fact that it does affect his life and his papacy. The fact that he rarely kneels or genuflects is often speculated to have to do with his sciatica. If so, this would constitute a very public and indeed controversial form of care for his health, given that his habit of remaining on his feet throughout liturgies often leads to criticism for perceived impiety. Would a Pope with a more traditional aesthetic and style kneel and genuflect anyway? Perhaps, and perhaps it would be laudable if he did. Nevertheless, Francis’s accommodation for himself shows an honesty about his limitations.
Our two recent chronically unwell Popes teach us different things about sickness and pain. John Paul II teaches us about how to endure through obvious suffering, and Francis teaches us about making accommodations for ourselves and our limits. Other powerful figures, like Abe, can show us other facets of sickness and health—choosing what to prioritize, choosing when and how to admit that we are suffering.
We need not follow their lead; sickness looks different for every person, and public shows or admissions of suffering can be dangerous to one’s social standing in many cultures. Personally, I believe that it is good for us to hope that someday this danger won’t exist. We should hope that some day people will be “allowed” to live openly while sick or in pain. This vulnerability is in some sense dependence, or, as some might say, interdependence. Pope Francis expressed this dependence as trust in his prayer to Mary at the Urbi et Orbi earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic:
you always shine on our path as a sign of salvation and of hope.
We entrust ourselves to you, Health of the Sick,
who at the cross took part in Jesus’ pain, keeping your faith firm.
You, Mother of the Divine Physician,
know what we need,
and we are sure you will provide
so that, as in Cana of Galilee,
we may return to joy
after this time of trial.
Help us, Mother of Divine Love,
to conform to the will of the Father
and to do as we are told by Jesus,
who has taken upon himself our sufferings
and carried our sorrows
to lead us, through the cross,
to the joy of the resurrection. Amen.
Under your protection, we seek refuge, Holy Mother of God. Do not disdain the entreaties of we who are in trial, but deliver us from every danger, O glorious and blessed Virgin.
Let us pray for Pope Francis, Prime Minister Abe, and those in our own lives who live with chronic illness or pain. May sickness be an avenue of grace to them rather than a path to misery and exclusion. May we all learn what we can from those who suffer, and may we help them and allow them to rely on us. May we also keep in mind that all of us, at some point or another in our lives, will struggle with sickness and with pain.
Image source: Cabinet Public Relations Office of the Government of Japan. The Government of Japan takes no responsibility for the content of this essay.