Peggy Noonan’s heart ached with the need for meaning in her life, something that even being speechwriter and adviser to three presidents couldn’t fill.
She felt something in common with the crowd at the 1979 Mass in Warsaw on John Paul’s first visit to Poland as Pope as they chanted, “We want God! We want God!” She needed God. And John Paul II gave him to her.
St. Catherine of Siena always referred to the pope as “the sweet Christ on Earth.” Her eyes saw farther than the men of her time, who were too concerned with the politics of the Avignon papacy to see in their Holy Father a man who was more than a man. Peggy Noonan saw John Paul II like Catherine saw Gregory XI.
In some small way, she repaid her personal debt to her Holy Father by penning a new biography that tells his story in parallel with her own discovery of her faith. The remarkable, often surprising John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father vibrates with Catherinesque intuitions about the man who, more than anyone, shaped the Church of our time.
We are, after all, the John Paul II generation. Noonan’s book is a captivating witness to our basic need to keep reliving our experience of John Paul II.
She sweeps us into the tale by recounting her experience of a typical general audience in July 2003. To those who have lived in Rome, nothing is more spectacular and yet normal than these weekly encounters of pilgrims from all over the world with their Holy Father. We all saw what she saw: the throngs of tourists and pilgrims of every shape, size, color and attitude, singing as they waited for the Pope’s arrival and cheering vigorously as he, in his chair, was rolled on stage.
“It was like a wheel-throne; it was like the kind of big wooden roller they use to get something off the top shelf at Home Depot. It looked both practical and absurd. Everyone applauded, and as I clapped, I looked around me and saw faces set in a determinedly pleasant look, as if they were thinking, I am so happy to see you, but the sight of you is breaking my heart.”
We all lived what she lived: that inner wrenching that tore at our heartstrings as we couldn’t leave his side. There was something more there. John Paul for us was truly a Holy Father, a man whose greatness somehow turned everything he touched to gold. Even the age and sickness that ruined his body was powerless to sap his drive.
“And yet as I watched him, I realized I did not see him as ill and frail. I saw him as encased — trapped in there, in an outer immobility. Outside he is old and frail, but inside he is John Paul, the one who had walked out on the Vatican balcony and dazzled the crowd 24 years before. And for the first time I thought: He is a victim soul. His suffering has meaning, it is telling us something. He is giving us something, a parting gift.”
And yet, as she recounts to her own amazement, at the very end of the audience, she turned around to look at all the crowd behind her that had filled Paul VI Hall. There was nobody there. Two thirds of the audience had left early, before the Pope was even rolled off the stage. It was as if they were just there to have seen him, take a few pictures, and move on to the next must-see attraction in the Eternal City.
How many people really understood John Paul II? How many penetrated into what he believed? How many understood the lesson of his prayer? The questions gnaw at history, our history, and now is the time to ask them. Here enters Peggy Noonan’s genius: As she probes who John Paul was, she makes him come alive from the inside in a way that makes us ask, “Who was he?”
I get the impression that we didn’t understand him because he wasn’t like the rest of men who puff themselves up into greatness. He was simple, small, ordinary, and yet such a saint and man of God that he seemed to rise above our times. Naming him Time’s Man of the Year seemed insufficient; calling him 2005’s Religious Newsmaker of the Year seemed trite. He was too big for all that: Everything he said always seemed right, especially when it was hard; everything that he did seemed to turn out right; every time he smiled we sensed the enormity of what he meant.
His was a life that didn’t really fit the documentaries that tried to tell its story. Biography after biography droned on again over the basic facts, “Karol Josef Wojtyla was born on May 18, 1920, in the small Polish town of Wadowice, the third child of Karol and Emilia Wojtyla…”
His life was too ordinary and too immense.
He was so close to us — millions more people saw him in person than any other person in history — and yet so far removed, so close to God. In an interview with Noonan, Father Richard Neuhaus summed it up by quoting St. Paul: John Paul taught us “a more excellent way,” that of love for God and love for neighbor. She tells us that John Paul even taught us how to love a Pope, perhaps Pope Benedict’s most fortunate inheritance. Maybe that’s true.
For those simple souls who understood him from the outset, and for those who came to understand him, he was, in Noonan’s words, a spiritual father.
The most fascinating moments of John Paul the Great recount how he transformed her personal life.
The rosary he gave her in June 2000 at a small-group audience was just a souvenir then. “For a year I kept it and showed it to people and thought to frame it with the picture. And then one day, in the middle of trouble in my life, I did with it what those who give you such things hope for you to do. I said a Rosary. And then another.” And with that, her life was transformed. She started writing more about her faith. She learned to love saying the Rosary on the subway going to work in Manhattan from Brooklyn. And the Rosary taught her to pray, to contemplate, to discover Mary.
John Paul prayed too. Constantly. The stories keep cropping up about how he would slip into a chapel and there, absorbed in prayer, forget everything. The little notes that people slipped to him during audiences and mailed to him by the thousands ended up in his kneeler, she tells us, where he would rifle through them before the Eucharist. He was always there for us.
And we were always there for him, especially at his passing. The immensity of it all was overwhelming. It was as though the most important thing he did was to die. Why did everyone come running to pay their last respects?
“We all want a spiritual father,” Noonan writes. “Whatever the circumstances of your life and family, whatever strong fathers you have in your life, we all want a spiritual father. We want someone who will stand for what is difficult and right, what is impossible but true. We are human, and so we don’t always want to live by the truth or be governed by it. But we are grateful when someone stands for it.”
That was his particular brand of holiness: to stand for the truth unswervingly in the teeth of the gales of history, because he stood for God.
And so we can’t forget. We are one year removed from that April, and the Church doesn’t want us to forget him. That’s why saints are canonized: not for the sake of posthumous honors to the Church’s best and brightest, but to inspire all of us to imitate those who taught us the paths of God.
Legionary Brother Shane Johnson
is studying for the priesthood in Rome.