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Witness to Hope:
The Biography of Pope John Paul II

by George Weigel
HarperCollins/Cliff Books, 992 pages, $36

The life of John Paul II invites superlatives, and George Weigel is not unwilling to employ them. This pope, he asserts, is “the most compelling public figure in the world, the man with arguably the most coherent and comprehensive vision of the human possibility in the world ahead.” “He is arguably the most well-informed man in the world.” “No human being in the history of the world had ever spoken to so many people, in so many different contexts.” Weigel might perhaps have added that no one has been the subject of so many biographies, and such long ones, published in his own lifetime. Beginning with George H. Williams’ The Mind of John Paul II (415 pages, 1981), we have seen a stream of serious biographies, each longer than its predecessors: Pope John Paul II: The Biography by Tad Szulc (542 pages, 1995); His Holiness, by Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi (582 pages, 1996); Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II by Jonathan Kwitny (754 pages, 1997). In subtitling his book The Biography, Weigel seems to be deliberately challenging the claim of Szulc.

If a choice had to be made among the biographies, Weigel would clearly win. His book is the longest (992 pages, including index). As the most recent, it is able to build on, and at some points correct, its predecessors. Weigel has the further advantage of understanding and professing the Catholic faith, as a result of which he is able to give due attention to the theological, pastoral, and spiritual dimensions of Karol Wojtyla’s career neglected by some of the other authors. The pope, in fact, asked George Weigel to write this book, accorded him many interviews, and gave him access to confidential documents and personal conversations with trusted friends and advisers. While this biography is not “authorized” in the sense of having been reviewed and approved by the Pope, and while it is not uncritical, it is the kind of biography that will surely please John Paul II. Its publication in half a dozen languages is sure to be a major literary event.

Although the pope is still very much alive, this biography was written none too soon. Posthumous biographies labor under the difficulty that the witnesses tend to be unavailable. Weigel, however, has been able to interview not only the pope himself but also many living associates, including some of his boyhood friends such as Jerzy Kluger, who has played a singular role in improving Catholic-Jewish relations.

The early pages of the book take the reader back to a time when Catholics and Jews lived together amicably in southern Poland before the rise of anti-Semitism in the 1930s. The opening chapter vividly recreates the peaceful and pious Polish environment of the 1920s (Wojtyla was born in 1920), when young “Lolek” prayed with his father at the shrine of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska and when he took part in a student pilgrimage to the shrine of the Black Madonna at Czestochowa. These early experiences of traditional Polish Catholicism were decisive for the present pope’s dedication to prayer, his promotion of pilgrimages, and his tender devotion to the Blessed Virgin.

From these tranquil beginnings we pass on to the nearly unimaginable brutality of the Nazi persecution, directed against both Jews and Catholics in Poland. There should be no competition among the victims. The story of those terrible days makes it clear that, while Jews undoubtedly suffered the heaviest blows, both groups were targets of Hitler’s venom, which was atheistic, antireligious, and racist at once. The Jagiellonian University, where Wojtyla was enrolled, was dispersed, and he himself was forced to labor for the occupation forces, first in a limestone quarry and then in a Solvay chemical plant. His faith and unremitting prayer enabled him to find God in the midst of great personal suffering. As a poet, dramatist, and actor, and then as an underground seminarian, Wojtyla exhibited the irrepressible creativity and courage that has marked his life as a whole. He saw the importance of maintaining Polish culture, which neither the Nazis nor, subsequently, the Marxists were successful in suppressing.

Almost immediately after his ordination to the priesthood in November 1946, Wojtyla was rushed to Rome. In some eighteen months of study under the Dominicans of the Angelicum he completed his doctoral studies. In the summer holiday of 1947 he gained useful contacts with the “worker priest” movement in France and with the Young Christian Workers in Belgium. In later essays Wojtyla reflected on the anomaly of the relapse of France into post-Christian paganism at the very moment when its intellectuals were bringing Catholic culture to remarkable heights. One lesson, he believed, was the necessity of maintaining a laity who would be alert to their responsibility to implement the gospel in its social dimensions.

Weigel’s description of Wojtyla’s life as a young priest in and about Krakow should be an inspiration to priests and laity alike. Wojtyla used his intellectual and charismatic gifts very effectively to form all sorts of parish groups for social, liturgical, and intellectual nourishment and apostolic activity. Marriage and baptism, administered at his hands, were not mere routine rituals but transforming events, leading to conduct in which the grace of the respective sacraments was lived out. By means of his outings with student groups and young adults, climbing mountains, skiing, and kayaking, Wojtyla set a novel pattern of nonclerical but authentically priestly ministry, in which spiritual conversation and worship were felicitously combined with relaxation and entertainment. While venturing far beyond the sanctuary, he never stepped out of his role as a priest.

When the young Wojtyla was assigned to further studies and professorial duties, he maintained many of his pastoral involvements. His dissertations in Rome on Saint John of the Cross and in Krakow on Max Scheler may not have forged new advances in intellectual history, but they admirably prepared their author for his eventual magisterial responsibilities, both academic and ecclesiastical. Throughout this period of study and pastoral activity he continued to produce volumes of poetry and playsart forms that appealed to him as reaching the inner depths of the human condition. His book on Love and Responsibility, based on lecture courses of the late 1950s, was programmatic for his later writings on love, human rights, sexuality, and marriage. In his articles and lectures, Professor Wojtyla sketched out the theological anthropology that would appear in more systematic form in his postconciliar work, The Acting Person.

The young priest was on a kayaking trip with friends in the summer of 1958 when he received orders to return immediately and report to the primate, Cardinal Wyszynski, who gave him the news that he was being made a bishopthe youngest in Poland. Almost immediately after his consecration he became involved in the preparations for Vatican II. When the Ante-Preparatory Commission was established in June 1959, Wojtyla submitted a long memorandum, proposing that the Council should address the situation of the human person in the world of today.

The four years of Vatican II (19621965) were crucial for the formation of the young bishop. Weigel, like Rocco Buttiglione and other biographers, vividly portrays his energetic participation in the shaping of several Council documents, especially the Declaration on Religious Freedom and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. It was at the Council that he formed a lifelong friendship with Henri de Lubac, who later recalled being impressed by all that Wojtyla had to say at meetings of the commission on the “Apostolate of the Laity.” “The superiority of his mind and his great openness,” said de Lubac, “were evident to all.” He also won the admiration of Yves Congar, from whose unpublished diary for February 2, 1965, Weigel is able to quote: “Wojtyla made a remarkable impression. His personality dominates. Some kind of animation is present in this person, a magnetic power, prophetic strength, full of peace, and impossible to resist.”

Karol Wojtyla’s activities as archbishop of Krakow (19641978) are handled rather summarily in a fifty-page chapter. In view of the importance of these years, I wish that more could have been said about his interpretation of Vatican II and his implementation of its teachings in his archdiocese, especially through the Archdiocesan Synod that met from 1972 to 1979. During this period the Cardinal Archbishop traveled to many parts of the world, including three visits to the United States (1969, 1973, and 1976). He was heavily engaged in the Synod of Bishops, serving on the Synod Council from 1971 through 1977. The Synod assemblies from 1967 to 1977 did much to set the direction of the Catholic Church at a time of flux and confusion. Cardinal Wojtyla, it appears, had significant input into the Synod teaching on the collegiality of the bishops (1969), the ministerial priesthood (1971), justice in the world (1971), evangelization (1974), and catechesis (1977). Weigel, by devoting less than two pages to the Synod of Bishops, leaves the reader hungry for further details on Cardinal Wojtyla’s role in all these meetings and the interim meetings of the Synod Council.

In researching the conclave of October 1978 Weigel seems to have managed to breach the official secrecy, thanks to interviews with a number of cardinals who were present, especially Franz König of Vienna, who championed the election of Wojtyla. With that election, the biography picks up speed to reflect the whirlwind pace of the new pope’s activity and his involvement in events across the face of the globe. From this point on, the biography could almost pass muster as a review of recent world history, though it never loses its focus on the Pope himself.

In the twenty-year span of John Paul II’s pontificate from 1978 to 1998, Weigel 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. Weigel holds that the pope’s two addresses to the United Nations General Assembly (1979 and 1995) were magisterial. Likewise, his brilliantly crafted speeches in Cuba in January 1998, without ever directly mentioning the regime, spoke powerfully to the Christian soul of the Cuban people, apparently leaving Fidel Castro embarrassed and tongue-tied. The succession of World Youth Days at Buenos Aires (1987), Santiago de Compostela (1989), Czestochowa (1991), Denver (1993), Manila (1995), and Paris (1997) show that the aging pope, while diminishing in physical vigor, retains his charisma.

In his comments on the pope’s writings Weigel shows enthusiasm for most of the encyclicals”especially Redemptoris Missio (1990) on evangelization, Centesimus Annus (1991) on social reconstruction, Veritatis Splendor (1993) on the principles of moral theology, Evangelium Vitae (1995) on the sanctity of human life, Ut Unum Sint (1995) on ecumenism, and Fides et Ratio (1998) on the Christian renewal of philosophy. Most of these encyclicals, as Weigel reports, were well received. The controversy resulting from Veritatis Splendor, in his view, only proves the urgency of the Pope’s teaching as a corrective of current errors. The encyclicals on God the Father (Dives in Misericordia, 1980) and on the Holy Spirit (Dominum et Vivificantem, 1986), Weigel believes, deserve more attention than they have received.

The general audience talks gathered under the title The Theology of the Body (19791984) are, in Weigel’s estimation, the first compelling papal response to the sexual revolution. These lectures, which portray the expression of human love in marriage as an icon of the divine self-giving, represent in his view a signal advance in the theology of marriage, far surpassing earlier Catholic teaching. Paul VI’s famous “birth control” encyclical, Humanae Vitae, in Weigel’s estimation, failed to adopt a rich personalist context and thereby left the Church open to the charges of legalism, biologism, and pastoral insensitivity. Weigel likewise extols the pope’s theology of woman, expressed in Mulieris Dignitatem (1988) and his Letter to Women (1995), as setting the course for the Church’s engagement with the women’s movement in the coming century.

Weigel’s appreciation of the pope’s writings is not, however, uncritical. While admitting that Laborem Exercens (1981) is the pope’s own preferred social encyclical, Weigel finds it “empirically questionable” on a number of counts. The second social encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1988), in Weigel’s opinion, is marred by the influence of Catholic intellectuals and activists who believed in the “moral equivalence” of the first-world and second-world blocs. The apostolic letter on the ordination of women, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994), Weigel judges, was flawed by a “strategic error””the decision to issue it as a confirmation of Paul VI’s teaching on the subject rather than to develop the argument from the spousal nature of the Church. The letter might have shown more convincingly that the priest, sacramentally representing the Bridegroom, could not suitably be a woman.

For any lack of success in this pontificate Weigel tends to blame the Vatican staff for giving bad advice. At some points the curia comes in for much the same kind of drubbing that we have come to expect from authors belonging to the liberal reformist school. Weigel is in fact able to document a number of staff errors. The financial dealings of the “Vatican Bank” with the Banco Ambrosiano of Milan can hardly be charged to John Paul II himself. The mistakes of the Secretariat of State and the diplomatic corps, it seems, caused the angry reaction of the Russian government at the erection of three apostolic administrations in the former Soviet Union. An indiscretion by the Congregation for Oriental Churches, moreover, was responsible for the collapse of the negotiations for a meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch Aleksy that was to take place in Vienna in June 1997.

These isolated cases, however, should not be taken as typical. Excellent staff work facilitated many of the Pope’s pastoral journeys and the negotiations leading to the recognition of Israel. Weigel is able to give credit to Father DavidMaria Jaeger, O.F.M., for helping to bring the negotiations between the Holy See and Israeli representatives to a successful conclusion. He praises Mary Ann Glendon for her work at the Beijing Conference on Women, and several collaborators from the curia and beyond for their contributions to Veritatis Splendor.

On some issues Weigel seems to disagree with the pope himself. While celebrating the Pope’s qualified endorsement of free-market capitalism in Centesimus Annus, he is evidently uneasy with the pope’s repeated critiques of economic liberalism. And on just war theory, Weigel continues to defend the position taken in his own book Tranquillitas Ordinis (1987) in favor of the possibility of waging just wars in our day. The pope, he believes, has failed to clarify the moral criteria for the legitimate use of armed force in defense of basic human rights and for “humanitarian intervention” on behalf of innocent victims. “The Vatican’s performance in the Gulf War crisis between August 1990 and March 1991,” Weigel writes, “did not meet the high standards set in the previous twelve years of the pontificate.”

American readers will be particularly interested by Weigel’s handing of the pope’s relationship with President Reagan in backing the Solidarity movement, which toppled the Communist government of Poland. In this section of his book, Weigel rejects the various portraits of the “political pope” found in other biographies. In particular, he refutes the claim of Bernstein and Politi that John Paul and Reagan entered into a conspiracy in which the Pope would have agreed to steps such as the placement of NATO intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe as the price for American support of the Solidarity movement. Weigel insists that the pope’s strategy was culture-driven and evangelical, not political.

The mutual respect between John Paul II and President Reagan does come through in Weigel’s treatment. He takes satisfaction in quoting at some length from the Pope’s “paean to ‘ordered freedom’“ at his meeting with President Reagan in Miami on September 10, 1987. Weigel also reports with regret on the Bush Administration’s neglect of relations with the Holy See.

Lengthy as this work is, it had to come to an end. For practical purposes Weigel closes his story with the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Wojtyla’s election as pope, on October 16, 1998, although certain additions have been made after the book was set in proof to take care of key events of early 1999, such as the agreement of Lutherans and Catholics to sign their Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification on October 31, 1999. There will presumably be much more to the Wojtyla story as the jubilee year of 2000 unfolds. Perhaps someday, in a later edition, Weigel will be able to complete his account.

As it stands, this book is a major contribution, invaluable for putting John Paul II’s achievements into proper perspective. Not content with vague generalities, Weigel spares no pains to furnish exact personal names, dates, places, and figures. His interest never seems to flag, whether he is writing about theological debates, political events, literature, or even medical data. He has been tireless in gathering information about the Philippines, Central America, Poland, France, Germany, and practically every corner of the globe. I noticed very few errors of fact, all of them trivial.

The career of John Paul II is complex enough to challenge the most venturesome of biographers. To survey it is to be drawn deep into the disciplines of literature, Polish history, Jewish-Christian relations, diplomacy, political theory, scholastic theology, phenomenology, physical science, and theology. Weigel, to his credit, dodges none of these topics. His refusal to be selective gives a somewhat choppy character to the narrative, but that is a price the reader should be willing to pay for the thoroughness of this biography. The subject itself requires many changes of scene.

John Paul II’s theological vision gives an overarching unity to his thought and his program of action. Everything he says and does has some reference to his universalistic Christology. Jesus Christ, he maintains, is the paradigmatic human being and the indispensable channel of God’s redemptive love for all men and women. For this reason the Pope, immediately after his election, could issue the stirring invitation: “Be not afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization, and development.”

One of Weigel’s literary devices impresses me as ill-conceived. In many cases he begins his chapters with a vignette that anticipates what is to come later in the story, perhaps with a view to capturing the reader’s interest. I found these departures from the chronological order unnecessary and confusing.

Another shortcoming, though it does not substantially detract from the merits of the book, is Weigel’s failure to emphasize the continuities between John Paul II and his recent predecessors”continuities that the present pope wished to emphasize by the very name he adopted at his election. Pius XII, whom Weigel portrays as a recluse dependent on a clerical bureaucracy, does not receive due credit for the inner renewal of the Church in his great encyclicals on the Mystical Body, biblical studies, and the liturgy, and for bringing the Catholic Church into relationship with the coming global order in his great Christmas radio broadcasts during World War II.

Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council consistently built on Pius XII’s teaching regarding human rights. It is not enough to say, as Weigel does, that commitment to the defense of basic human rights “had been implicit” in John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris and in the documents of Vatican II. Writing in 1979, David Hollenbach was able to call Pacem in Terris “the most powerful and thorough statement of the Roman Catholic understanding of human rights in modern times.”

When speaking of the evangelical renewal of the papal office, Weigel treats it as an original accomplishment of John Paul II, without giving adequate recognition to Paul VI, who has been plausibly described as “the first modern Pope””a claim that Weigel takes pains to refute. Many, even most, of the salient features of John Paul II’s pontificate, as summarized in Weigel’s final chapter, were anticipated by Paul VI. He was, like John Paul II, a Pope of dialogue, of religious freedom, and of ecumenism, especially in his cordial relations with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. He called attention to the priority of culture and gave a strongly evangelical and missionary stamp to his apostolate, carrying the gospel to the ends of the earth. Paul VI’s great apostolic exhortation on “Evangelization in the Modern World” contains all the essentials of John Paul II’s program for the “new evangelization.”

These great Popes of the twentieth century cannot fairly be described as though they were imprisoned in the bureaucratic machinery of the Vatican. If they worked more closely than John Paul II does with their curia, history may judge them favorably for having done so. The intensely personal style of Wojtyla’s papacy has been impressive, but it too has its limitations. Some Popes are outstanding for teamwork and administrative competence, whereas others, like John Paul II, follow their own inspiration. No one Pope can exhaust the potentialities of the office.

If Weigel lets himself be trapped by the journalistic stereotypes of earlier popes, he successfully contests the standard journalistic portrayals of John Paul II. His book should explode, once and for all, the myth of Wojtyla as “an angry old man incapable of understanding the world he helped to create.” He shows how the pope’s radical commitment to the gospel permits him to value the freedom of every person to follow the biddings of conscience. Forceful he sometimes is, but never impatient. Because he expects the following of Christ to be strewn with crosses, he retains his joy, his ready wit, and his impish sense of humor even in the midst of distressing situations. Fortified by a deep spirit of prayer, he seems to be utterly fearless in confronting danger and opposition. Because of his unshakable faith in Christ and his unfaltering trust in the Holy Spirit, John Paul II preeminently deserves the title, which Weigel adopts from the pope’s own self-description, “witness to hope.” And George Weigel is, thus far, the principal witness to that witness. He has written a memorable biography of an extraordinary leader.

Avery Dulles, S.J., holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair at Fordham University.

Photo by José Cruz licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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