ROME - The final act of Pope John Paul II's pontificate is difficult to watch, but he is determined that the whole world see it.

The drama will be played out again this Holy Week, the most important week of the liturgical calendar, as the pontiff, barely able to speak or stand, struggles to demonstrate that he is able to lead his flock of 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.

The Vatican has promised only that on Easter the pope will offer a televised blessing from the papal apartments. By lowering expectations, the papal handlers seem to be calculating that any words or appearances beyond that will be interpreted as a sign that the pope's health is improving.

But the reality, obvious to all, is that the 84-year-old pope is dying, and in the act of dying he is adding yet another chapter to a legacy that already is larger than life.

The Parkinson's disease that eats away at his vitality has left him hunched and immobile. His hands tremble uncontrollably. His great Slavic head slumps to his chest; his face, drained of color and expression, is a mask of pain. His words are unintelligible. He drools, and a bevy aides attends to him with tissues.

His most recent appearance, by live video Thursday, lasted less than a minute. He appeared gaunt and did not speak.

In a global culture that worships youth and beauty and politely averts its eyes from the wrinkled and infirm, the pope is an anomaly.

"When public figures get old and start to decay, they tend to step off the public stage," said John Allen, author of several books on the papacy and Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. "When we hear the news of some old celebrity's death, most of the time we say, 'Gee, I didn't know he was still alive.' That won't happen in the case of John Paul II."

Indeed, the pope has made a conscious decision to make his suffering and death a public testament. It has become his personal Calvary, to unite "my own sufferings with those of Christ," he wrote Friday in his annual message to priests.

Pope John Paul II's life "is the kind ... we would tend to marginalize today, but the pope is putting himself front and center, before the TV cameras, before the eyes of the world," said the Rev. John Wauck of the Santa Croce Pontifical University in Rome.

Pope John Paul's reasoning is hardly a mystery.

"The pope thinks the most effective thing a human being ever did on this Earth was to die on a cross," Wauck said.

An actor in his youth, a man of athletic vitality and striking good looks when he assumed the throne of St. Peter more than 26 years ago, Karol Wojtyla wouldn't be human if he didn't take some pride in his physical appearance or feel embarrassed by the ravages of his illness. Yet he soldiers on.

"Think of how that must hurt," Wauck said. "You couldn't do it unless you had arrived at perfect spiritual humility."

The redemptive power of physical suffering has been central to Pope John Paul's theology long before his present illness.

"When the body is gravely ill, totally incapacitated, and the person is almost incapable of living and acting, all the more do interior maturity and spiritual greatness become evident," he wrote in Salvifici Doloris, his 1984 apostolic letter on suffering.

The pope also sees his present condition as an opportunity to reaffirm the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to contraception, abortion and euthanasia - what he calls the "culture of death."

Before his most recent hospitalization, in a letter to the Pontifical Academy for Life, the pope wrote that human dignity "endures in every moment of life, from the first instant of conception up to natural death ... [and] consequently, man must be recognized and respected in any condition of health, illness or disability."

But as the pope's physical limitations grow more pronounced, so do the questions about who is running the church.