The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy
By George Weigel
Doubleday, 608 pages, $32.50
When, in 1843, Thomas Babington Macaulay predicted that the Catholic Church would exist in “undiminished vigor when a time traveler from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruin of St. Paul’s,” he simply assumed the extraordinary resilience and enduring vitality of Catholicism. His contemporary, John Henry Newman, argued that one primary source of that resilience was the “detachment” of the papacy, which gave it a singular capacity to anticipate historical developments and to avoid mere conservatism. This confidence was not apparent in the fall of 1978, when the increasingly tragic papacy of Paul VI came to an end and was followed by the monthlong reign of John Paul I. The papacy itself seemed an exhausted project.
Then, unexpectedly, came the second conclave of that year and the election of the man whose papacy George Weigel rightly describes as one of the most consequential of the two millennia of Christian history. It was consequential not merely because John Paul himself became the “singular embodiment of the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of the second half of the twentieth century,” but because he “reinvigorated the Church spiritually and intellectually, restoring a sense of the adventure of discipleship . . . and constantly reminding the entire Church that it did not exist for its own sake, but for its evangelical mission.”
The End and the Beginning is both a sequel to Witness to Hope, Weigel’s comprehensive biography of 1999, and a new appraisal of John Paul’s legacy. One might have expected in 1999 that the major achievements of John Paul’s papacy were already known and that the only task remaining was to chronicle its decline. Few would have anticipated the extraordinary ways in which the last years of the papacy, marked by “strength perfected in weakness,” even more fully confirmed Gorbachev’s claim that John Paul II was the highest moral authority on earth.
Drawing on recently discovered materials from the archives of Communist intelligence services, Weigel describes the forty-year history of their attempts to discredit Karol Woytyla and the Church in what Woytyla himself described as a “great struggle between good and evil . . . a great struggle between Mary and Satan.” The Polish security service assigned a remarkable number of agents—480—to sabotage the pope’s historic nine-day visit to Poland in June 1979, for example, although without success. The intelligence services recognized the threat to Marxist regimes that John Paul represented because, as John Gaddis pointed out, he exposed “the disparities between what people believed and the systems under which the Cold War obliged them to live.”
Weigel also explores the tensions between the “bureaucratic realism” of Cardinal Agostino Casaroli’s Ostpolitik, undermined by the penetration of Communist espionage, and John Paul’s determination to contest the impoverished anthropology of Marxism. Here we see John Paul’s sense of the importance of culture as the interpretive key to history and the exposure of what Weigel calls the Jacobin and Marxist fallacies—the illusions that history is driven by a quest for power and that history is the “exhaust fumes of impersonal economic forces.”
Weigel notes the importance of John Paul’s sense of his own historical situation and his deep awareness of the transitional character of twentieth-century culture. The dramatic cry in the pope’s inauguration homily—“Be not afraid!”—disclosed the great mark of the twentieth century to be one of fear and a loss of hope. Contemporary cultures had lost a vital understanding of the foundations of human dignity and were increasingly marked both by disillusion and by a mechanical and instrumental account of the human person. In his apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, issued in 1994, John Paul said Christian hope “is not simply a case of man seeking God, but of God who comes in person to speak to man of himself and to show him the path by which he may be reached.” Despite profound skepticism on the part of many in the curia, John Paul pressed forward at the eve of the new millennium with plans for a series of reflections that might allow the world “to draw lessons from the past,” so as to choose life in what had become a culture of darkness.
Weigel stresses the importance of John Paul’s consistent emphasis on the promise of the young and highlights the remarkable response to World Youth Day in Rome in 2000, when John Paul called the young to an unexpected heroism: “It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives . . . the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity.” In Toronto two years later, he continued: “The young are our hope. Do not let that hope die. . . . We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of our Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.” The response of the John Paul II generation astonished both senior churchmen and those cultural critics who happened to take note of it. This response was perhaps most poignantly displayed on the vigil of his death by the thousands of young people who gathered in St. Peter’s Square to mourn the imminent loss of the man who had become their spiritual father.
Crucial to John Paul’s effect was his emphasis on the moral structure of freedom, his recognition that the human person needs not merely a free society but a free and virtuous society. Society needs to be safeguarded from two utopian dreams—that of justice without freedom and that of freedom without truth—because both, as John Paul wrote, “portend errors and horrors for humanity, as the recent history of Europe sadly attests.”
In the last six years of John Paul’s life—as his physical condition deteriorated, and some called for his abdication, insisting that he was no longer capable of managing the bureaucracy of the Church—the mystery of the interconnection of love and suffering was dramatically realized on the world stage. This mystery is richly captured in John Allen’s description of John Paul as “a living symbol of human suffering, in effect, an icon of Christ on the cross.” His hand trembling, his facial features often frozen, his voice failing, barely able to walk, he became for billions of people the great moral witness of his age.
In a time in which the human body seemed to lose any iconic significance, in the weakness of his failing body, John Paul participated, as Cardinal Lustiger noted, in the suffering of his Redeemer, for the “mystery of salvation happens when Christ is on the cross and cannot do or decide anything other than to accept the will of the Father.” This great mystery complements the insights reflected in John Paul’s catechesis on the theology of the body.
In turning to the question of his legacy, Weigel acknowledges that John Paul did not always grasp the seriousness of certain challenges faced by the church, not least the sexual abuse crisis. This reflects the inadequate information on which he relied, a certain hope about the human situation that kept him from assuming the worst, and a habitual skepticism about reports of priestly immorality—an inevitable reaction given what had been a standard practice of deception in Communist intelligence services. In appointing bishops, the pope did not fully overcome the habits of bureaucratic culture and, worse, did not develop a way to identify candidates able to contribute to his new culture of evangelization.
Perhaps John Paul’s greatest significance lies in the fact that he provided a way to interpret the watershed event of the Second Vatican Council. In doing so, he largely transcended the standard political interpretation of the papacy, which emphasized the importance of personal policies. As Weigel notes, a pope does not create policies. Rather, a pope is the “guardian, and with the College of Bishops, the authoritative teacher of . . . the deposit of faith.” The papacy conserves what is fixed and stable “in order to foster a dynamism and creativity that are faithful to the Church’s one supreme rule of faith, the living Christ.”
The End and the Beginning is an indispensable complement to Witness to Hope. George Weigel provides not merely an essential and privileged account of the closing chapter of this extraordinary life, but also the interpretive keys to the signature themes of the pontificate and what Weigel calls the uniquely Woytylian synthesis of Catholic thought and practice. He also offers, finally, an essential reminder of why so many around the world could not take their eyes away from the death vigil and the extraordinary funeral at which the words “Santo subito” and “Magnus” reverberated, not only in the stones of St. Peter’s Square.
Don J. Briel is director of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas, where he holds the Koch Chair in Catholic Studies