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.
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 detailbut, thankfully, not too much detailthe 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)