Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul IIby George Weigel
Given unprecedented access to Pope John Paul II and the people who have known and worked with him throughout his life, George Weigel presents a portrait of the Pope as a man, a thinker, and a leader whose religious convictions have defined a new approach to world politics - and changed the course of history.. "Weigel explores new information about the Pope's role in… See more details below
Given unprecedented access to Pope John Paul II and the people who have known and worked with him throughout his life, George Weigel presents a portrait of the Pope as a man, a thinker, and a leader whose religious convictions have defined a new approach to world politics - and changed the course of history.. "Weigel explores new information about the Pope's role in some of the recent past's most stirring events, including the fall of communism; the Vatican/Israel negotiation of 1991-92; the collapse of the Philippine, Chilean, Nicaraguan, and Paraguayan dictatorships during the 1980s; and the epic papal visit to Cuba. Weigel also includes previously unpublished papal correspondence with Leonid Brezhnev, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Deng Xiaoping, and draws on hitherto unavailable autobiographical reminiscences by the Pope.. "Rounding out the dramatic story of Pope John Paul II are fresh translations of his poetry; detailed personal anecdotes of the Pope as a young man, priest, and friend, sketched by those who knew him best; and in-depth interviews with Catholic leaders throughout the world.
New York Times Book Review
The Times Literary Supplement
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.
The Wall Street Journal
Read an Excerpt
Chapter OneThe 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 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.
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