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Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II

Publisher: Harper Perennial • 1999 • 1056 pages
Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II

George Weigel’s biography of John Paul II is a panoramic tapestry of a book. General readers will be swept along by the dramatic life story of the man who triggered the revolution of consciousness that led to the collapse of European communism, prepared the Catholic Church to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and touched the lives of hundreds of millions of women and men with his televised messages and worldwide pilgrimages. Scholars will admire the finely stitched research that sustains this sweeping narrative. Most importantly, Witness to Hope provides an introduction to the theological context without which the pontificate of John Paul II cannot be understood.

Many writers have been fascinated by this Pope’s role as a shaper of world events, but most have shown little comprehension of the philosophical and religious commitments that undergird his decisions and actions. Hence the common tendency to analyze this papacy in merely political terms, and even, Weigel notes, to treat it as one whose “Act I”, the struggle against communism, gives way to an “Act II” where the Pope rejects many aspects of the new freedom he helped to bring about. Of such interpretations, the Pope once remarked: “They try to understand me from the outside. But I can only be understood from the inside”.

To interpret John Paul II “from the inside”, however, requires a biographer with a rare combination of qualities. Such a person must be well grounded not only in Catholic, thought, but in modern secular philosophies; politically sophisticated; independent of mind, yet able to “think with the Church”. Happily, George Weigel, the author of the first fully developed argument that the Polish Pope had played a crucial role in the demise of the Soviet empire (The Final Revolution), possesses all those qualifications plus a gift for explaining without simplifying that any theologian would envy. The result is a portrait both of a towering “Witness to Hope” and of the Catholic Church as she enters the third millennium.

Witness to Hope is not, as Weigel takes pains to point out, an official or “approved” biography. However, the author’s many personal discussions with the Pope and his closest associates, his interviews with men and women who knew Karol Wojtyla at every stage of his life from boyhood onward, and his access to many hitherto unpublished documents make it likely that this book will be the standard reference on its subject.

The principal task that Weigel set himself was to understand how John Paul II came to his convictions, how he deepened them and how he learned to express, defend and bear witness to them. While fulfilling that aim admirably, Weigel does not neglect the view “from the outside”. He identifies eight achievements that guarantee John Paul II’s pontificate a special place in history: his revitalization of the papacy; his development of the full implications of Vatican II, thereby setting the Church’s course for many years to come; his role in the peaceful defeat of totalitarian regimes; his clarification of the moral challenges facing free societies; his placement of ecumenism at the heart of Catholicism; his dedication to progress in the Church’s relations with Judaism; his commitment to the dialogue with Islam; and his success in using modern means of transportation and communication to reach hearts and minds in every part of the world.

The person behind those achievements appears in Weigel’s study as a complex modern man—an intellectual with a warm appreciation of popular piety; a mystic who is also an avid sportsman; a celibate who celebrates human sexuality and has many women friends; a Pole with deep sensitivity toward Jews and Judaism; a man of profound interiority with an exceptional public presence. As Weigel points out, no Pope in living memory has ever brought to his office such extensive pastoral experience, nor such intimate familiarity with the everyday problems of ordinary laymen and laywomen.

Bishop Wojtyla’s singular qualities were already evident at the Second Vatican Council. Yves Congar noted at the time: “His personality dominates. Some kind of animation is present in his person, a magnetic power, prophetic strength, full of peace, and impossible to resist”. In the discussions on Gaudium et spes, Congar was struck by the. fact that Wojtyla had insisted on a point made by no one else—the need for the modern Church to consider views that conflicted with her own. That eagerness to learn from others was a hallmark of the future Pope’s thought. For him, as for Thomas Aquinas, “Be not afraid” meant being bold enough to look for truth wherever some fragment of it might be found, and that meant engaging with science, secular philosophy and other religions.

To this lay reader, Weigel’s most impressive achievement is his demonstration of the continuities among pastor “Wujek’s” hands-on ministry in Poland; philosopher Wojtyla’s work on The Acting Person; the literary Wojtyla’s plays and poems; and Pope John Paul II’s Encyclicals and speeches. The thread that runs through them all is the Pope’s vision of the human person as an actor in the drama of salvation. From his early days as a pastor to his unforgettable worldwide pilgrimages, he has electrified young people, in particular, with that vision. To women and men in all walks of life, he has preached that we are not adrift at the mercy of forces beyond our control, but are moral agents who constitute ourselves, for better or worse, with every action we take and every choice we make.

The movement of all history is dramatic, he teaches, and the great struggle of any life is to move from the “person-I-am” now to the “person-I-am-called-to-be”. Each person’s life is a process of seeking and questioning, but we do not seek in a void because at the centre of the human drama is Jesus Christ, “whose entry into the human condition and whose conquest of death means that hope is neither a vain illusion nor a defensive fantasy constructed against the fear at the heart of modern darkness”.

The Pope’s historic speech on his return to Poland in June 1979 (“perhaps the greatest sermon of his life”) was, Weigel suggests, a popular rendition of The Acting Person, readily intelligible to believers and non-believers alike. In contrast to Marxism’s materialistic reduction of humanism, the native son held up the Church’s social doctrine “in which men and women were not the victims of impersonal historical or economic forces, but the artisans of society, economy, and politics”.

When an older, frailer John Paul II traveled to another closed society nearly two decades later, he exhorted Cubans in the same manner. “You are not victims”, he told the crowds. “You are and must be the principal agents of your own personal and national history”. Time and again, on these and other occasions, John Paul II has portrayed individual human beings, and all humanity throughout history, as travelers on a journey where every step counts, either helping to build the civilization of life and love or collaborating with the culture of death. His ability to communicate that vision has helped countless men and women to take the high road.

Weigel movingly describes how the 1981 assassination attempt, illnesses and age have taken their toll on the man who for so long exuded exceptional physical vitality. From 1994 on, with complications from hip surgery and the diagnosis of a form of Parkinson’s disease, “the way of the Cross would ever more visibly mark the pontificate of John Paul II”. Yet, the increasingly infirm Pope has retained his special gift for communicating with young people, his prodigious work habits and his uncanny knack of giving everyone in a room the sense he is looking right at them. Under the pressure of aging publicly, he seems to be teaching the rest of us how to walk that path with dignity. And at times, as Weigel notes, he exhibits “an even more palpable sense of command” than in his more physically vigorous days. One thinks in this connection of his great 1995 UN speech, where he issued this challenge to the nations: “Inspired by the example of all those who have taken the risk of freedom, can we not recommit ourselves also to taking the risk of solidarity—and thus the risk of peace?”.

Weigel makes clear with dozens of examples that John Paul II’s pontificate cannot be divided into two “Acts”, but is all of one piece. The same concern for the dignity of the person, and the same dedication to genuine human liberation have impelled the Pope to speak out against whatever reduces human beings to objects or instruments, whether in rich countries or poor, dictatorships or democracies. “The papacy”, says Weigel, “has been a one-act drama, although different adversaries have taken centre stage at different moments in the script”. Throughout it all, John Paul II has been “a courageous pastor determined to speak truth to power”.

That steadfastness in defending human dignity whether it is threatened by political repression or rampant materialism is nowhere more evident than in the Church’s surprising emergence in recent years as the world’s foremost institutional defender of the universality and indivisibility of fundamental human rights. John Paul II’s leadership in making the Church a “voice for the voiceless” in international settings is so important that it would, I believe, have merited separate mention on Weigel’s list of the great achievements of this papacy.

One cannot, obviously, do justice in a brief review to a work as comprehensive as Witness to Hope. I would be remiss, however, if I did not at least mention Weigel’s brilliant elucidation of another important theme of this papacy: the Pope’s conviction that culture, more than military or economic power, is the driving force of history. When Weigel turns from John Paul II’s theology to his social Encyclicals, he enters more controversial territory. Not every faithful Catholic will agree with Weigel’s interpretations of the meaning of these much-discussed teachings, or of their relation to one another, but all should find his analyses intelligent and challenging.

Lest anyone think this papal biography by a loyal son of the Church is the literary equivalent of an airbrushed studio portrait, I should mention that Weigel seems to have taken to heart the quotation from Melchior Cano that he describes as the “watchword” of his project: “Peter has no need of our lies or flattery. Those who blindly and indiscriminately defend every decision of the Supreme Pontiff are the very ones who do most to undermine the authority of the Holy See—they destroy instead of strengthening its foundations”. Most of Weigel’s criticisms relate to the fact that Karol Wojtyla, whether as pastor, Bishop, Cardinal, or Pope, was never a micromanager. That lack of close supervision, Weigel concedes, was probably the price to be paid for the benefits of a papacy with great intellectual creativity And public impact.

At the conclusion of this richly detailed, carefully documented book, Weigel steps back to sum up what, to him, is the meaning of this extraordinary pontificate: “if the Church of the future knows John Paul II as ‘John Paul the Great’, it will be for this reason: at another moment of peril, when barbarians of various sorts threatened civilization, a heroic figure was called from the Church to meet the barbarian threat and propose an alternative. In the case of Pope Leo the Great, the barbarians in question were Attila and his Huns. In the case of Gregory the Great, the barbarians were the Lombards. In the case of John Paul II, the barbarism threatening civilization has been a set of … defective humanisms that, in the name of humanity and its destiny, create new tyrannies and compound human suffering”.

Recently, after Weigel delivered a speech on his research at the Pope John XXIII Seminary in Massachusetts, a seminarian asked Weigel how he personally had been affected by writing the biography of the Pope. Weigel responded that he had been deeply changed by the experience. That is easy to believe—just as it is easy to believe that many readers will be changed by the opportunity this splendid biography provides to know John Paul II “from the inside”.

Book Review from L’Osservatore Romano, by Mary Ann Glendon

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