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Pope John Paul II and Parkinson's Disease


Updated May 22, 2009

Pope John Paul II and Parkinson's Disease

Pope John Paul greeting bishops in Warsaw, Poland.

Library of Congress
Pope John Paul II is credited by most historians with playing a crucial role in the peaceful overthrow of the communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe during the last decades of the 20th century. He is also credited with attempts to forge new relationships with other faiths, including Judaism and Islam. He traveled the entire world preaching peace, reconciliation and the inviolable dignity of the human person, ultimately visiting 129 countries outside of Italy itself. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1993 at age 73.

Parkinson's Disease and the Pope:

He died 12 years later, after using his suffering to try to bring world attention to the disease and to re-invigorate the search for a cure for the disease. He regularly called attention to the disease during his papal audiences and met several times with representatives of PD service organizations. This man who had been something of an athlete before becoming Pope and who had preached to millions across the entire world was in his final years unable to walk normally or to speak normally.

Work and PD:

No one can say for sure whether his PD affected his work as Pope. He served for another 12 years after receiving the diagnosis. As with most other people with PD, some symptoms probably began some years before the diagnosis. If so, that would indicate that for the majority of his pontificate he had been suffering from varying degrees of parkinsonism.

His Achievements:

Consider that the man wrote thousands of pages of dense theological argument and beautiful, elegantly written encyclicals – not to mention several books that were on the bestseller lists for years. In addition, he had survived an assassination attempt in 1981 -- later visiting his assailant in his jail cell and forgiving him the attempt. This pope kept up a fairly sophisticated diplomatic effort for well-nigh 20-plus years and managed the billion-strong Catholic church for all those years as well.

Even if we can factor in assistance from able staff, the Pope’s accomplishments have to be accounted extraordinary. His PD seems not to have prevented this man from making history and from improving the lives of millions of people.


George Weigel, 2005. "Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II," Harper Perennial.

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