It’s not George Weigel’s Witness to Hope , but, at one-fourth the length, this book is a brief and inspiring reflection on the life of John Paul the Great. Written by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, A Life with Karol: My Forty-Year Journey with the Man Who Became Pope (Doubleday, 2008) gives an insider’s look into the life of one of the twentieth century’s greatest men.

Dziwisz served by the side of Karol Wojtyla from 1966 until Wojtyla’s death in 2005. As personal secretary, first in Krakow, then in the Vatican, Dziwisz does not attempt a comprehensive scholarly biography. Instead, he recounts some key and poignant moments from John Paul’s story—memories of a friend, a conversation with the reader.

So for example, we hear about the awe-filled days surrounding the papal conclave—how, the afternoon of his election, Wojtyla’s longtime friend Maximilian Cardinal de Furstenberg strengthened him with words from the rite of priestly ordination: ” Deus adest et vocat te , God is here and he is calling you.” Then, Dziwisz relates how John Paul painstakingly rehearsed his first papal homily to none other than Angelo Gugel, Vatican butcher, determined to address Rome in her own language. That homily was unforgettable:

I think that those words—”Be not afraid! Open the doors to Christ . . . ”—were the motto of his life and the master key to his pontificate. Those words were meant to inspire strength and courage, especially in the nations groaning under the yoke of bondage. To them, his words were a proclamation of freedom.

But . . . the words “Be not afraid!” didn’t come to John Paul II from an ideology, or a political strategy, but from the practice of the Gospel and the imitation of Christ. That was his strength! Armed with those words, he set out to travel the ways of the world and, I think, to transform it.

The subsequent chapters sketch his travels (around the world about thirty times) and his teachings (fourteen encyclicals alone), and they highlight the transformation that resulted. Constantly emphasizing the need for true humanism—recognition of and respect for the dignity of man as the image of God—John Paul was a spiritual inspiration for the Polish solidarity movement and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. The Pope of the People, he spoke out globally for the poor, infirm, and oppressed, and he invigorated the youth with love for the Church. He promoted evangelization—”new evangelization,” he called it—challenging people to spread the light of the Gospel in all states of life. And, once again, he led the way, constantly working for peace and reconciliation between nations and creeds.

There are many touching moments in Dziwisz’ account, and there are charming, even funny, ones too. This is one of my favorites:

If memory serves, it was January 2, 1981. We left around 9 AM in Father Jozef’s car, so as not to attract the attention of the Swiss Guards stationed at the exit of the residence at Castel Gandolfo. Father Jozef was the driver and Father Tadeusz sat in the passenger’s seat, pretending to read the newspaper, which he held completely open so as to shield from view the Holy Father, who was sitting next to me.
. . .

We drove through a lot of villages so that the pope could enjoy himself looking out the windows and seeing a bit of ordinary life. When we arrived, we parked near one of the ski runs outside of Ovindoli, but there was hardly anyone there. That was the beginning of a wonderful, unforgettable day. Mountains on every side. The landscape completely covered in white. A huge silence in which you could focus your mind and pray. The Holy Father even managed to ski. He was delighted by the “present” we had given him. On the way home, he smiled and said to us, “Well, we did it after all!”

John Paul made more than a hundred of these expeditions, many unknown at the time to either the Vatican or the press. As Dziwisz observes, “In the mountains, he contemplated the works of God and abandoned himself into the hands of their Creator.”

No one can read about the life of John Paul the Great without coming away with the conviction that he was a real man, with whom God was really present. And his life is a testimony that, with God, all things are indeed possible. In essence, the story of his life is simple: “He was in love with God. He lived on God. And every day, he would start over again. He always found new words to pray, to speak with the Lord . . . . It was as if he never stopped praying.”