There are as many answers to the title of this book as there are people who knew, met or were influenced by Pope John Paul II. Msgr. Slawomir Oder’s answer stems from his role as postulator in Karol Wojtyla’s cause for canonization.
Msgr. Oder’s book is less a traditional biography than a focus on Wojtyla’s life from the viewpoint of the religious faith which animated it. The focus is on what made Wojtyla “tick” spiritually — his faith, his prayer life and the primacy of the spiritual in shaping his actions.
Msgr. Oder generally follows the chronology of Wojtyla’s life, but he is not unduly restricted by strict biography, often making his case using anecdotes that color and flavor the “pure facts.”
As he explains: “In many cases, these are stories that have never before been told. The reason they emerge in the context of these hearings is that the witnesses — once the candidate for sainthood is dead — now feel free to recount occurrences and events that they had previously preferred to keep to themselves. The postulator is therefore entrusted with a series of reports, anecdotes, and fioretti (literally, ‘little flowers’) that, when duly assembled into a larger mosaic, create a new and unprecedented portrait of the candidate.”
In my view, what was most significant about Wojtyla was his Christian humanism. Not that he thought that “Christian” humanism was just another variant on “humanism,” but rather that the degree to which one grew as a Christian and one grew as a human stood in direct, not inverse, ratio.
Msgr. Oder connects this insight clearly with Wojtyla’s spirituality: “To Karol Wojtyla, Christianity was a concrete experience, a thing of flesh and blood: the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, who became man in order to experience the joys and sufferings of humanity. This is why Karol Wojtyla’s religious testimony proved to be so remarkably fecund and influential.”
Msgr. Oder frequently provides an “inside view” of Wojtyla’s life: his hidden charity, his personal humility, his daily rhythm of prayer, his Marian devotion.
Sometimes one wishes that Msgr. Oder would address some of the criticisms leveled against Wojtyla. For example, he quotes the late Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski that Wojtyla was “a mystic … a saint, but he is a bad administrator.” Msgr. Oder fails to follow through and address what some critics today most fault about Wojtyla’s supposedly poor management: What did John Paul II do about the sex-abuse scandal?
The six years since Wojtyla’s death have brought forth a wealth of testimony to Wojtyla’s spiritual depth. This book adds to our awareness of the gift of John Paul the Great.
John M. Grondelski writes from Bern, Switzerland.
WHY HE IS A SAINT
The Life and Faith of Pope John Paul II and the Case for Canonization
by Slawomir Oder with Saverno Gaeta
189 pages, $22.50
To order: rizzoliusa.com