The Polish Pope
The scope of Pope John Paul II's life almost exceeds the imagination. Born in 1920 into a pious Polish family, Karol Wojtyla experienced suffering early as his mother, brother, and father died before he was 20. A promising student, athlete (he skied until he was in his 70s), and actor, he had to cut short his studies and move his acting underground during World War II. To avoid the massive Nazi sweeps against Polish intellectuals, he took an arduous job as a quarryman. His theatrical troupe continued to risk their lives performing in sympathetic homes, changing venues frequently to elude Nazi suspicion. Wojtyla narrowly escaped the Nazis several times, once by praying in his basement apartment as Nazi soldiers searched upstairs.
Wojtyla's talent convinced his fellow actors that he was destined for the stage. But the death of his father and his horror at the evil of wartime Poland led him to seek spiritual guidance, and, after an internal struggle, he joined an underground seminarya move expressly forbidden by the Nazis that, if discovered, would have led to his death. He continued his studies at work, secretly reading amidst the clamor of the quarry.
After the war, despite the Red Army takeover of Poland, Wojtyla was ordained as a priest. A rugged, athletic clergyman, he led yearly hiking and kayaking trips with groups of young Catholics (they called him "Uncle" to avoid Communist suspicion of his religious title), where they discussed religious issues in his beloved Polish mountains. A popular priest and lecturer, Wojtyla was named bishop at age 38. He began to be internationally noticed with his thoughtful, passionate contributions to the revolutionary Second Vatican Council in the early '60s, where bishops gathered to discuss the most sweeping reforms the Catholic Church had seen in centuries.
Quickly Wojtyla advanced in his position, rapidly becoming first Archbishop of Krakow and then Cardinal. On October 16, 1978, Wojtyla, in Rome to elect one of his colleagues to the suddenly vacant seat of the Pope, found himself named Bishop of Rome, the first non-Italian Pope in centuries, and the first Slavic Pope in the history of the church. In the announcement to the masses cheering the election of this foreigner with an unpronounceable name, Wojtyla endeared himself immediately by addressing them in their native Italian rather than the traditional Latin. Here he announced his new name: John Paul II.
The remarkable unfolding of the above comprises only the first half of George Weigel's comprehensive biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope. John Paul II's papacy would see the rise of Solidarity in Poland, the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, massive crowds for all of his international public appearances, and a nearly-successful attempt on his life. And the drama was not without its mystical moments: The day before would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Acga shot the Pope before an adoring crowd in St. Peter's Square, the Pope quoted the following, possibly prescient New Testament passage in his nighttime prayer: "Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour."
Weigel, a distinguished Catholic scholar and philosopher who has been writing about this pope for more than 20 years, has taken seriously the task of portraying John Paul II's complexities. The Pope's writings are carefully explained in the larger context of his life. Not content to merely describe the events in his life, Weigel delves into the realms of history, geography, and philosophy to help us get inside the Pope's story. Wartime Poland comes to life in his careful description; Wojtyla's grappling with his philosophical studies is charged with as much electricity as the sweeping drama of his Papal election.
Weigel also takes great care to describe the links between the man's life and his philosophy. Such care is crucial, because it is only through an understanding of the Pope's historical, philosophical, and mystical roots that we may understand the political externals of his papacy and his own moral choices. For example, one reason this Pope has insisted upon the dignity of work in his writings, Weigel argues, is that he himself experienced the travails of physical labor. And having lived through the issues of toil and struggle, of life and deathof clear good and clear evilin wartime Poland, Pope John Paul II, though an intellectual, does not have the luxury of academic abstraction.
Weigel's grasp of complexity does not extend to his treatment of the Pope's detractors, however. A political as well as a spiritual figure, Pope John Paul II has excited passionate opposition even within the church. Even devoted Catholics are often wary of the Pope's positions on women, church hierarchy, reproductive freedom, and the role the Church is to take in political life. Weigel portrays these dissenters as, at best, misunderstanding the Pope's positions, or, at worst, deliberately undermining the truth of the Pope's words. It would have been interesting to have seen these dissenting voices engaged more directly; they are a genuine cry of crisis within the Church and deserve more than the dismissive paragraphs offered here.
Still, Weigel's painstakingly researched portrait of Pope John Paul II is an enormous accomplishment. The Pope's footsteps on the world stage will likely be heard well into the next millennium, and this book is worthy of its towering subject.
Caitlin Dixon is a freelance writer and filmmaker who worked on a documentary on Pope John Paul II that recently aired on PBS. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Stupor MUNDI, “the world-astounder.” The tag was affixed first to Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and the thirteenth century’s earthquake of a man. Yet look at Pope John Paul II. Even as the hand that traces benedictions over enraptured crowds quivers with palsy, as the eyes now watch more warily down from the boulder of the man’s amazing head, as the titan teeters when he walks, this Pope deserves a similar designation. He’s a seismic force, an astonishment.
That’s he’s failing, presumably from Parkinson’s disease, only adds to him the grandeur of pathos. Yet he provokes no solicitude or pity. He remains too intimidating, too adamant, simply too big for that. He’s a figure, as George Weigel relentlessly reminds us with the eight hundred and thirty-two pages of Witness to Hope, for the record books; the patron saint of Type A personality, he will not stop. Weigel gasps: “In two decades, he had made eighty-four foreign pilgrimages and 134 pastoral visits outside Italy, traveling 670,878 miles, or 2.8 times the distance between the earth and the moon. During seven hundred and twenty days of pilgrimage outside Rome, he had delivered 3,078 addresses and homilies while speaking to hundreds of millions of men, women, and children, in person and through the media. No human being in the history of the world had ever spoken to so many people.” And on and on and on.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, John Paul’s servant yet his symbolic anti-type, maintained that Christianity demands “doing small things with great love.” Likewise, her darling model, St. Therese of Lisieux, espoused a “Little Way”: finding Jesus in mopping floors and scouring bedpans. Finally, “Il poverello,” Francis of Assisi, became Catholicism’s jewel by being in all things humble, small.
There’s little of the “Little Way” in John Paul II—and that may be asking too much. After all, “realists” argue, he is Pope, CEO of the world’s largest religious denomination. Not many of his two hundred and sixty-three precursors were obviously self-abnegating saints; too many, wed to the “Roman” in Roman Catholic, wielded immense worldly power. Rather than “rendering to Caesar,” they were Caesars themselves. And yet none of John Paul’s immediate predecessors displayed his daunting might. Tiny John Paul I, the thirty-three-day Pope, radiated modesty. Paul VI wore power like a crown of thorns. And it was John XXIII, the resolute cherub, who not only embodied a counterimperial papacy but who, with the Second Vatican Council, made a mission of “deconstructing” the magisterial church by cracking its windows to the fresh air of ecumenical influence.
It’s chiefly as evangelical executor of Vatican II’s reforms that Weigel casts his subject. A Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Policy Center and a theologian, the biographer sees John Paul II as pitted against “restorationists” who despise the vernacular Mass, wax nostalgic for Pius XII and his iron grip and, much like Muslim fundamentalists, abhor modernity. The Pope’s more numerous critics, a greater force certainly among America’s fifty million Catholics, are the liberals who accept Latin American Liberation Theology’s “preferential option for the poor” and deem John Paul’s silencing of theologians (Hans Kung, Charles Curran, Matthew Fox, et al.) an echo of the Inquisition. They judge the Papacy cruel and clueless when it comes to what one Jesuit wag called “pelvic issues”; in anything regarding sex, celibacy or women (particularly women’s ordination), John Paul is seen to be about as open-minded as Torquemada.
Weigel asserts that the Pope’s navigation of a middle course (not very middle, really) between the camps is only one aspect of his mastery. His John Paul surges, in fact, from triumph to triumph: bringing the evil empire of communism to its knees, surviving a potential assassin’s bullets, canonizing more saints than any other pontiff, and penning thirteen encyclicals that erect a bulwark against the torrents of unorthodoxy. His John Paul is a philosopher, wit, pastor, God’s diplomat, even a mystic (Weigel’s glimpse into the Pope’s prayer life is exemplary). Weigel argues his case with commendable, exhaustive, if detail-addled research and a kind of lordly, cantankerous vehemence. He swings his prose like a hammer.
He is particularly good at the “back story”: the history of the Pope’s native Eastern Europe, the labyrinthine intrigues of Soviet statecraft, the mechanics of Curial administration. John Paul’s prickly detente with the Jesuits, the church’s largely left-leaning elite, for example, is rendered with nice thoroughness; this is an account of ideological jousting of a refined fascination.
Indeed, overall, Witness to Hope is more patently ideological defense than biography. Of the many life studies of the Pope—Tad Szulc’s brisk page-turner, Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi’s political thriller, Rocco Buttiglione’s intellectual study, to name but a few of the more accessible—Weigel’s is a singularly partisan one. Drawing upon “more than twenty hours of conversation” with John Paul II, Weigel emerges as the Pope’s champion. Not for him any rigorous questioning of the man’s motivations; no real concession to John Paul’s poignant human fallibility. Impatient, it seems, with the currents of psychobiography, Weigel doesn’t analyze critically his subject’s early traumas: the deaths in his family that left him orphaned at twenty, the resistance to Nazism that fueled his heroism but perhaps also prompted a siege mentality, the enforced self-sufficiency that steeled him but may have made him the Pope who, in Bernstein’s words, “surrounds the Church in barbed wire.” For Weigel, the Pope’s very real agonies have only made him a superman.
Supermen, unsurprisingly, impress—but they’re not sympathetic. And it’s in shaping John Paul as a monument that Weigel’s massive, defensive project backfires. Set aside for a moment this reviewer’s equally subjective view that John Paul’s powerful papacy has been at least as much tragedy as triumph. One of Catholicism’s more beautiful ideas is that of kenosis, from the Greek for “emptying out.” Goodness, kenotic theology holds, proves itself by giving up power. It’s the lesson of the Crucifixion, and of the Franciscan spirituality of Dorothy Day, Martin De Porres and John of the Cross. It hasn’t yet been achieved as a papal model, but arguably, John XXIII was headed there. It would contend that exactly at this millennial moment, the world’s oldest institution needs no defense for its survival other than its complete deinstitutionalization, that the windows Vatican II opened be flung open yet more widely. And that John Paul’s flinty, hard-won, desperate, strained “success” is precisely his and his church’s failure. That may take a miracle, but in the eyes of faith, the very eyes the church insists guide it, the spirit makes all things possible.
Weigel, naturally, would have none of this. But in giving us a granite Pope, he renders it impossible for us to feel for John Paul that essential of Christian virtues—love.