Pope John Paul II greets throngs of Poles waiting for a glimpse of their native son at the monastery of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa during his 1979 trip to Poland. Although the part played by the Catholic Church in the overthrow of communism has been detailed by countless books and studies, some Western commentators and historians appear unwilling to acknowledge it. CNS photo/Chris Niedenthal

Weigel adds personal touch to life of Pope John Paul II

By  Herman Goodden
  • March 9, 2018

In Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II, Baltimore-born papal biographer George Weigel reflects in a highly personal way on the 15 years he devoted to chronicling the life and times and impact of John Paul II in Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010). It is a story that emphasizes repeatedly and powerfully the idea of providence.

Early on in his reflections Weigel bestows on JPII, the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years, a designation I would not dispute, as “the emblematic figure of the second half of the 20th century.” 

In terms of his service to the Church, JPII, who had done so much work as a Bishop and Archbishop of Krakow in developing dogmatic and pastoral constitutions for the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, was perfectly situated to correct its often willful misinterpretation by proponents of such faddish movements as liberation and feminist theology. “The thought of John Paul II,” Weigel writes, “was not so much against the dominant liberal consensus of the post-Vatican II years as it was far beyond the progressive Catholic versus conservative Catholic civil war.” 

And in terms of his service to the world, who but this Polish man, trained to the priesthood in an underground seminary while the Nazi regime held its boot on the neck of the national Church and then finding a way to shepherd his flock through 30 some years of Communist oppression, was better equipped and situated to help the world finally — and non-violently — throw off the yoke of totalitarian tyranny? 

I doubt that I would be alone in designating Winston Churchill as “the emblematic figure of the first half of the 20th century” for the way he roused the world’s conscience by finally recognizing, denouncing and standing alone (at first) against the Nazi threat. In the Yalta Conference at the end of the Second World War, Churchill was thwarted in his next ambition, which was to contain the massive post-war Soviet expansion which he knew was sure to follow. No one had any further appetite for open armed struggle at that time and for the next four decades the Cold War rattled away until — against all expectations — the Soviet Empire was peacefully dismantled by a religiously-infused movement of resistance which took much of its counsel and inspiration from JPII. 

When I came into the Church in 1984, JPII had occupied St. Peter’s throne for six years. I can’t say he was a large part of what attracted me, but he certainly didn’t make me take pause as I suspect the more erratic and impulsive Francis might if I were tussling with such a decision today. There was an integrity and a quiet, unflappable courage to the man that were manifest from the very first words he spoke when he was introduced as Pope to the assembled crowd below in St. Peter’s Square: “Be not afraid!”

I devoured English-language papal biographies as soon as they appeared, including New York Times’ journalist (and Fidel Castro biograph

JPII booker) Tad Szulc’s John Paul II: The Biography (1995) and Wall Street Journal war correspondent Jonathan Kwitney’s Man of the Century (1997). I preferred Kwitney’s to Szalc’s, but both books missed the mark for me with way too much emphasis on politics and a comparatively leaden grasp of theology. I started to wonder if only a Polish writer would be capable of taking a deep enough sounding of the man. But then along came George Weigel in 1999 with his first 1,000-page installment of JPII’s life up to that point — and all was put triumphantly right. 

Some critics have taken the line that Weigel’s latest book is a bit of an ego trip with way too much about himself. But his subtitle, “My Unexpected Life With …” should have given fair warning that the real focus of this astonishing tale was to unravel the providential way in which a mild-mannered policy wonk in conservative American think tanks was invited by the Pope of Rome to write his authorized biography. 

And the very first step, Weigel believes, was taken during Lent of 1960 when all the classes at his parochial school were instructed to pray for six weeks for the conversion of a different Communist dictator and his Grade 3 class drew the name of Poland’s Wladysla Gomulka. 

(Goodden is a writer in London, Ont. His latest book is Speakable Acts.)

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