Lessons in Hope:
My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II
by george weigel
basic, 368 pages, $32
Czesław Miłosz once said that, in terms of moral grandeur and personal presence, St. John Paul II could have been one of Shakespeare’s kings. No less a judge than Joseph Ratzinger noted that it was JPII who had “made [the world] recognize once again the spiritual dimension in history.” In the twentieth century, only Churchill and Solzhenitsyn might be thought of as somewhat comparable public figures.
George Weigel has been the great chronicler and interpreter of Karol Wojtyła’s life and thought. His Witness to Hope is the definitive biography, which both for its access to the pope and his closest friends, as well as its insight in dealing with every aspect of the subject, is unequaled. (It was even used as a source in the pope’s process of canonization: “Your book is the bible in this office,” the official postulator told him.) And the sequel, The End and the Beginning, carries the story forward with previously unavailable material on the communist era until the pope’s final years and death.
The focus of his new book, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II, is still primarily the Polish pope. But Weigel also tells the story of how he came to write about Wojtyła in the first place—essentially because of providential “coincidences” in his own earlier life, not least a childhood interest in Poland, that prepared him for the job. In the process, he provides an astonishingly detailed account of behind-the-scenes conversations with JPII; their growing personal affection for each other; and his wide-ranging interactions with people who knew Wojtyła (the only way, the pope said, really to get to know him), which provided the foundation for the earlier two books. In the nature of things, a book like this leads to abundant use of the first-person singular and a good bit of what might be called the higher name-dropping. But all that is swallowed up in the sheer interest of the story and the unflagging verve with which it is told.
When the pope asked him to do the biography, Weigel writes, he realized that his whole life had prepared him for that daunting task. After a brief time in the seminary, he had decided against priesthood and went to Toronto to continue his study of philosophy—Thomism, as well as some of the modern philosophers Karol Wojtyła admired. From Toronto, he went first to an academic job, and then, somewhat improbably, to the World Without War Council in Seattle, where he began a serious engagement in international affairs.
WWWC’s president, Robert Pickus, a Jewish pacifist, became a mentor, despite their differences on matters of substance. It was “Pick” who encouraged Weigel to apply for a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. There he wrote Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace, a careful examination of how just war theory might be applied in current geopolitical circumstances. That eventually led to the book that caught JPII’s eye: The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism, a study of how dissidents in Central and Eastern Europe were pushing back against communist totalitarianism via moral, not military, means. That meant truth, the whole truth, and living the truth. As the Poles used to say, “to be free, two plus two must always equal four”—a point that has acquired renewed relevance lately.
Richard John Neuhaus was at dinner with Weigel when the pope asked him to do the biography. “This is going to change your entire life,” he said to Weigel later. He was not wrong—partly because of the material, but more particularly because of the deepening understanding, affection, and humor that developed between the pope and his scribe.
Weigel saw JPII’s pontificate as pushing that same spiritual and moral—not political—response to tyranny as the Central European dissidents. In his view, Wojtyła’s aim all along had been to rebuild an authentic Christian humanism with which to answer the distorted notions of the human person promoted by modern ideologies, including Western liberalism.
In the 1960s and 1970s, however, the Church adopted an accommodating stance toward the Soviet Union known as Ostpolitik. Unbelievable as it may sound, churchmen acted guilty before the Soviets, as if communist hostility were partly the Church’s fault. Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the architect of Ostpolitik under Pope Paul VI, had the motto salvare il salvabile (“to save what was savable,” i.e., at least the Church’s sacramental life). They devised an even larger principle of finding a modus non moriendi (a way of not dying), though Paul VI agonized over staying silent when outrages occurred against the Church.
JPII, of course, wanted the same things—but as a minimum, not as the limit on what the Church might hope for. He took a hardier line, as he had as archbishop of Kraków, which was partly responsible for results that no one—not the Vatican diplomats, not even the Western intelligence services—anticipated in the annus mirabilis, 1989. (It’s difficult to re-read this Cold War history and not think about the Vatican’s present softness in dealing with Communist China, or even with militant anti-Christianity in the secularizing nations of the West.)
Some in the curia, and like-minded Catholic commentators elsewhere, have accused Weigel, and friends Richard Neuhaus and Michael Novak, of having captured the narrative of the pope for their own, mostly American neoconservative purposes. But the evidence on offer here tells a different story. It’s true that there was a large convergence of views with the pope, who had great hopes for American Catholicism, especially on matters such as true freedom—including economic freedom, properly guided by moral and spiritual principles. But there were also differences, most notably on the Iraq War, as Weigel records here quite candidly.
Weigel also sought to warn JPII and the entire Vatican that the priestly sexual abuse crisis that surfaced in 2002 was serious and needed to be dealt with swiftly. He includes here portions of a personal letter he wrote to the pope, urging strong action because of the seriousness of the charges against priests—and against the bishops who had protected and mishandled them. But the pope was already ailing, and curial officials misread the situation and mishandled the response.
Weigel quotes the late Francis Cardinal George of Chicago speaking about the “synodal” approach to governing the Church that JPII resisted. For George, synodal governance was governance without headship, which is to say by committee, and “Jesus didn’t intend his Church to be governed by a committee.” The good cardinal saw that in Chicago, a toxic attitude had already developed among priests: “It’s not so much that they don’t want me as their bishop; they don’t want a bishop, period.”
Catholics wanted Karol Wojtyła very much, and many still do. Indeed, near the end of this story, Weigel describes visiting the office that was working on the pope’s canonization and seeing letters that had arrived from all parts of the world simply addressed: “John Paul II / Heaven.” Just one of many charming details that make this an illuminating and delightful tale.
Robert Royal is founder and president of the Faith and Reason Institute and editor-in-chief of the Catholic Thing.