Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II

Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II

4.8 21
by George Weigel

See All Formats & Editions

The Definitive Biography of Pope John Paul II

Witness to Hope is the authoritative biography of one of the singular figures -- some might argue the singular figure -- of our time. With unprecedented cooperation from John Paul II and the people who knew and worked with him throughout his life, George Weigel offers a groundbreaking portrait of the Pope as


The Definitive Biography of Pope John Paul II

Witness to Hope is the authoritative biography of one of the singular figures -- some might argue the singular figure -- of our time. With unprecedented cooperation from John Paul II and the people who knew and worked with him throughout his life, George Weigel offers a groundbreaking portrait of the Pope as a man, a thinker, and a leader whose religious convictions defined a new approach to world politics -- and changed the course of history. As even his critics concede, John Paul II occupied a unique place on the world stage and put down intellectual markers that no one could ignore or avoid as humanity entered a new millennium fraught with possibility and danger.

The Pope was a man of prodigious energy who played a crucial yet insufficiently explored role in some of the most momentous events of our time, including the collapse of European communism, the quest for peace in the Middle East, and the democratic transformation of Latin America. This updated edition of Witness to Hope explains how this "man from a far country" did all of that, and much more -- and what both his accomplishments and the unfinished business of his pontificate mean for the future of the Church and the world.

Editorial Reviews

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 seminary—a 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 death—of clear good and clear evil—in 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

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.

New York Times Book Review
A fascinating chronicle...Sheds light on the history of the twentieth century for everyone.
Washington Post
A tremendous achievement.
L'Express (Paris)
The first true biography of the last giant of the century.
ABC (Madrid)
A profound analysis of all the important issues...A marvelous work and a pleasure to read.
Il Tempo (Rome)
An indispensable source for all those studying the consequences and impact of this pontificate.
Jon Meacham
An exhaustive account of John Paul's life and pontificate, a book that will become a standard for students of church history and that sheds light on the history of the 20th century for everyone...As Weigel's sweeping history makes clear, few men have borne better witness to that truth than this pope.
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Weigel's massive work aspires to be definitive: it is subtitled "the," not "a," biography of John Paul II. Weigel, a Catholic layman and a fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., enjoyed the cooperation of the pope and access to top Vatican officials, so the book is rich in new detail. Determined to explain this papacy from the "inside out," Weigel successfully focuses on John Paul's trademark ideas: Christian humanism, the inner connection between freedom and truth, and culture as the driving force of history. As a guide to the pope's thought, Witness to Hope is invaluable. Yet as biography, it is often defective. Weigel frequently dismisses John Paul's critics rather than debating their ideas. The author's strong pro-Americanism leads him to misrepresent the pope as opposing a "third way" between capitalism and socialism and to treat his criticism of the Gulf War as a rare misjudgment. Though John Paul is a towering 20th-century figure, the assertion that his papacy is the most important since the Counter Reformation seems overblown. The book is well written (if somewhat repetitive, perhaps inevitably so with more than 900 pages) and Weigel's command of the material is impressive, but Witness to Hope reads more like a valedictory hagiography than a sober work of journalism. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
George Weigel's Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II is a remarkable book, learned but readable, and in many places important for understanding the history of our century.
The Times Literary Supplement
Paul Johnson
All popes must die eventually, but one can only wish some years yet to this grand old man of religion. As George Weigel's magnificent record of a rich and busy pontificate shows, they will not be wasted.
First Things
In the twenty-year span of John Paul II's Pontificate from 1989 to 1998, Wiegel finds much to celebrate. The new Pope's triumphal tour of Poland on his first visit in 1979 is the climax of the initial phase...Because of his unshakable faith in Christ and his unfaltering trust in the Holy Spirit, John Paul II preeminently deserves the title, which Wiegel adopts from the Pope's own self-description, "witness to hope.
Paul Evans
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.

As "Witness to Hope" makes clear this pope believes that his mission is indeed an ecumenical one. In George Weigel's well-wrought and comprehensive biography, we see the pope traveling from one denomination to another preaching the universal claims of Catholicism while urging his listeners to stick with the culture they have received from their parents.
The Wall Street Journal
Kirkus Reviews
A study that pays homage without degenerating into hagiography. Weigel has studied and written about Karol Wojtyla (pronounced "voy-TEE-wah"), better known as Pope John Paul II, for two decades. Here he records in detail—but, thankfully, not too much detail—the colorful events of the pope's life. After discussing Wojtyla's origins in Wadowice, Poland, Weigel gives an account of his work in avant-garde theater, his study in a clandestine seminary during WWII, his consecration as a bishop in 1958, his election as the first Slavic pope. In his examination of Wojtyla's papal career, Weigel pays close attention to his role in the collapse of communism (first explored in The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism, 1992), his writings and teachings on sexual intimacy, his international travel. According to Weigel, John Paul II's papacy has consisted primarily of variations on a single theme, first expressed in the pope's inaugural encyclical "Redemptor Hominis": "Christian humanism as the Church's response to the crisis of world civilization at the end of the twentieth century." Working with the assumption that only people in freedom can encounter God's love, John Paul II has believed that the Church has an obligation to safeguard human freedom. Concomitant with this pledge to work for freedom runs an evangelistic streak. Drawing on Augustine's notion that human hearts are "restless until [they] rest in" God, the pope has held throughout his career that modern anxiety, malaise, and restlessness can only be quelled through Christ, so, as John Paul II's Church has worked for human freedom, it has also evidenced a rather Protestant-esque commitmentto spreading the Gospel message. Massive in scope and length, and written with the pope's cooperation, Weigel's biography is sure to be the definitive work on Pope John Paul II for years to come. (illustrations, not seen)

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.12(h) x 1.72(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Marne, Tannenberg, and Verdun; the Battle of Britain and Midway; Stalingrad and D-Day's Omaha Beach--according to the conventional wisdom, these were the decisive battles of the twentieth century. Only Poles and professional historians remember the August 1920 Battle of the Vistula, or, as pious Poles insist, the "Miracle on the Vistula." Yet much turned on this, including the destiny of a three-month-old infant named Karol Jozef Wojtyla, born in the small provincial city of Wadowice the previous May 18.

In the summer of 1920, Polish history seemed set to repeat itself in a particularly ugly way. The Second Polish Republic, the first independent Polish state since 1795, was about to be strangled in its cradle as the Red Cavalry of General Semen Budennyi drove westward out of Ukraine, sweeping all before it. For Poles, it brought back memories of other invasions from the steppes and other preludes to national disaster. For Lenin, who wanted to "probe Europe with the bayonet of the Red Army," the infant Polish Republic was of no moral or historic consequence. It was simply the highway along which Trotsky's Red Army legions would march to Germany, triggering a revolutionary uprising across all of Europe. To make sure that any resistance would be summarily crushed, the Provisional Polish Revolutionary Committee, the puppet regime to be installed in the wake of the Red Army's inevitable victory, would be led by Feliks Dzerzhinskii, head of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police, the most feared man in Bolshevik Russia.

By August 12, as one historian has put it, "it was clear to most observers in Warsaw that the last desperate week of theresurrected Poland had arrived." The entire diplomatic corps fled, with one exception: Archbishop Achille Ratti, the Pope's representative. A Polish delegation left for Minsk, where they hoped to start negotiations for an armistice or a surrender with the Soviets. Dzerzhinskii was headed for Wyszkow, thirty miles from Warsaw, from which he expected to enter a fallen capital on August 17.

But Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, who dominated the life of the Second Polish Republic from its inception in 1918 until his death in 1935, was not prepared to concede defeat. Pilsudski's intelligence operatives had detected a gap between the two corps of Trotsky's army. In a daring move, Pilsudski pulled some of Poland's best divisions from the lines on which they were engaged and secretly redeployed them to take advantage of the gap between the Soviet forces. On August 16, the Poles attacked, and by the night of the 17th, the Red Army, which had begun its own attack on Warsaw on the 14th, had been reduced to a rabble of fleeing refugees at a cost of fewer than 200 Polish casualties.

Distracted by that year's calamitous flu epidemic and still reeling from the slaughters of the First World War, western Europe seemed unaware that, but for the Poles, the Red Army might just as easily have been camped along the English Channel as fleeing back into Great Russia. Lenin, though, understood that world history had just taken a decisive turn. In a rambling speech on September 20 to a closed meeting of communist leaders, he went into dialectical dithyrambs trying to explain why "the Polish war . . . [was] a most important turning point not only in the politics of Soviet Russia but also in world politics." Germany, he claimed, was "seething." And "the English proletariat had raised itself to an entirely new revolutionary level." It was all there, ripe for the taking. But Pilsudski and his Poles had inflicted a "gigantic, unheard-of defeat" on the cause of world revolution. At the end of his speech, Lenin swore that "we will keep shifting from a defensive to an offensive strategy over and over again until we finish them off for good." But for now, the westward thrust of Bolshevism had been rebuffed.

Among many other things, Pilsudski's stunning victory meant that Karol Wojtyla would grow up a free man in a free Poland, a member of the first generation of Poles to be born in freedom in 150 years. An experience he would never forget, it became part of the foundation on which he, too, would change the history of the twentieth century.

The Crossroads

The nation into which Karol Wojtyla was born was once the greatest power in east central Europe. The Polish-Lithuanian dynastic union, formed by the marriage in 1386 of the Polish Queen Jadwiga to the Lithuanian Duke Wladyslaw Jagiello, created a mammoth state that, by defeating the Teutonic Knights, the preeminent military power of the age, at the Battle of Gruenwald in 1410, set the stage for 200 years of Poland's growth. A decade after Columbus discovered the New World, Polish rule extended from the Black Sea in the south to the Baltic in the north, and from the German borderlands on the west almost to the gates of Moscow in the east. In those days, France alone exceeded the Polish kingdom in population among the nations of Europe. Polish power and the world-famous Polish heavy cavalry, the winged Hussars, played a decisive role in world history. In 1683, Polish troops led by King Jan III Sobieski halted the Turkish advance into Europe at the epic Battle of Vienna. Sobieski presented Pope Innocent XI with the green banner of the Prophet, captured from the Turkish grand vizier. Along with it came the message "Veni, vidi, Deus vicit [I came, I saw, God conquered]."

Poland's subsequent history was less glorious as historians typically measure national accomplishment. Memories of lost grandeur remained alive, though, in the form of an intractable conviction that Poland belonged at the European table. That conviction also had much to do with Poles' sense of their location.

Witness to Hope. Copyright © by George Weigel. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

George Weigel is one of the world's foremost authorities on the Catholic Church and the author of the New York Times bestseller Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II. He is a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Lisasutherland More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent book if you enjoy history and want to gain insight into the intrigue of the Catholic hierarchy and the Pope's internal dialogue with God. The book also gave a detailed understanding of Catholic teachings and the politics within the Vatican. You will gain a better understanding of the real role the Pope played in bringing down the iron curtain. Thoroughly enjoyed this book although at times it was fairly dense in terms of the theological teachings.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book inspired me to be proud of my Polish heritage. The Pope is a great man and truly one of God's own Apostles on earth. I even found a few relatives mentioned in his book. His trials and tribulations in life are surpassed by his infinite wisdom granted by God for his dedicated religous and human rights beliefs. He is truly a man of courage and faith. God Bless You sir for making the earth a better place in my humble Protestant opinion.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is massive, but unlike War and Peace, I didn't get bored over the two months it took to read it. I feel like I know John Paul II as an old friend.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This biography of the Pope cannot be overpraised. The author reveals the Christian humanistic vision which makes the Pope tick. He shows the link between the defense of human freedom (the human rights crusade) and the demand for Catholic coherence (the reassertion of church discipline), which other observers wrongly consider contradictory. No viewpoint, of course, is neutral. I don't find convincing the criticism of John Paul II's opposition to the Gulf War. The entry into war was precipitous, it only strengthened Hussein's grip, and the Pope is on the side of the angels in his longstanding call to lift the sanctions against the people of Iraq. The neo-con bias tends to sweep all before it. Still, this is the definitive portrait of the Pope.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This biography of Pope John Paul II is a very well researched and written book. Having a deep respect for the Pope, and having read other books on Pope John Paul II and also of all other previous Popes, I feel that I have a better insight into the life of Pope John Paul II. His life story and his successes are very historic & inspiring in nature, and Mr Weigel has shared this biography in a superb manner to the world. This Pope of our times is (as should be)a excellent role model to all.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago