During the final decade of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II’s ailments fueled predictions of an early retirement. Yet anyone conversant with his singular life knew better: He would stay the course until the Lord called him home to “the Father’s house.”
Readers of George Weigel’s remarkable 1999 best-seller, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, were better prepared than most to understand why the Vicar of Christ who launched a global campaign to defend the dignity of the human person would embrace — not flee from — the humiliation of physical deterioration.
Now, in the sequel, The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — the Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, Weigel completes the story of the Church’s third-longest pontificate, and offers the fruit of his own reflections on a spiritual father whose complex legacy is just beginning to be understood.
But Weigel’s sequel takes a slightly different form than its predecessor. It begins with an unexpected contribution to the historical record: The author has mined the extensive archives of Soviet-bloc spy agencies released in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Readers are offered juicy morsels culled from secret reports on Karol Wojtyla’s early days as a Polish bishop to his election as Pope and his orchestration of a nonviolent conclusion to the Cold War.
The high points and challenges of John Paul II’s last six years follow, with special attention to the Great Jubilee of 2000, his struggle to deal with the U.S. clergy abuse crisis of 2002 and the onset of Parkinson’s disease that imprisoned his body — even as it drew him closer to the cross and the path of “salvific suffering.”
An assessment of his legacy constitutes the final segment, providing the book’s most important contribution. Here, Weigel drills into his subject’s remarkable characteristics as a statesman and mystic, priest and friend. The reader begins to grapple with the fact that we can deeply love and esteem a great man of faith and still barely plumb the depths of deeply mystical faith.
Dealing With the Soviets
When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the exiled Russian author and Nobel laureate, learned that an unknown Polish bishop had been elected Pope, he proclaimed, “It’s a miracle! It’s going to change the face of the world!” The KGB feared the same. But its apprehension had developed slowly — like many bystanders who observed the Polish churchman, communist leaders, along with their extensive army of informers, struggled to take his measure.
Ordained a priest in 1946, Wojtyla soon emerged as a popular pastor and university professor with a unique gift for engaging the reign of terror established after Stalin wrested control of Eastern Europe. Wojtyla challenged the young to affirm their dignity by taking responsibility for their freedom as human beings. Writes Weigel: “[S]tudents who became his friends could forge their own decisions to live as serious Christians. And that meant, de facto, to live in opposition to the alternative constitution of society and the alternative idea of human goods being relentlessly promoted by communist propaganda.”
During these early days, the regime believed it could use Wojtyla to undermine Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the tough-minded primate of Poland who carved out a sphere of religious freedom for the Church. But Wojtyla circumvented their stratagems, displaying the same political agility that advanced his geopolitical strategy and diplomacy as Pope. After his election, John Paul took aim at the Vatican’s policy of Ostpolitik, an approach designed to defuse tensions between Soviet-backed regimes and the Catholic Church by acknowledging the political status quo in exchange for a measure of religious freedom. Wojtyla believed it was time for a bolder approach.
As Weigel tells it, Soviet-bloc informants had penetrated the Vatican, just as they had burrowed into Polish Catholic organizations. The new Pope devised his own solution to deal with this problem: he kept his own records of sensitive discussions and intelligence. Unlike his predecessors, he didn’t “dictate memoranda or conversations with prominent personalities or political figures … for ready reference in the Vatican’s Secretary of State. … Rather, in the evening, John Paul would go over each day’s meeting and conversation … with his longtime secretary Stanislaw Dziwisz. Dziwisz recorded all of this in a series of diaries that were kept in the papal apartments.”
At such times, Weigel presents a portrait of a foreign-born Pope forced to keep his own counsel. He had witnessed horrors unimaginable to many of the curial bureaucrats that passed through the corridors connecting the Vatican apartments. Long ago, solitude had become a familiar state of mind — and an opportunity for prayer and spiritual engagement. He had lost every member of his immediate family by early adulthood and bid farewell to countless friends who died on the battlefield and in concentration camps. During his final hours, he would be surrounded by Poles, not Italians — a testament to the deep bonds between countrymen forged during a long trial by fire.
But if John Paul’s own struggles and those of his country affirmed the virtue of hope and of Christian realism, that history also produced some unexpected blind spots. When the Pope first learned about the emerging clergy abuse scandal roiling the Church in the United States, he delayed imposing penalties, losing vital time that only worsened the crisis.
Why did a man who evinced great respect for human dignity seemingly ignore such evil? Some will find no answer satisfactory, and Weigel doesn’t try to justify John Paul’s delayed response.
But the author does provide some compelling cultural context. In Cold War Poland, the regime often undermined the credibility of priests by spreading rumors of sexual liaisons. Even as a young priest, Wojtyla refused to engage in such gossip and made it a practice to assume the best of everyone. Indeed, Weigel speculates, throughout John Paul’s priesthood, his belief in the human person’s capacity to know and embrace the truth raised the aspirations of young people schooled to retreat from the struggle for heroic virtue as an impossible dream. Yet, paradoxically, that same vision of human goodness led him to downplay an evil festering in the heart of the Church.
Weigel’s portrait of the Pope surely is not an exercise in hagiography. Yet it remains a penetrating and haunting meditation on a global religious leader who seemed to operate in parallel worlds — on earth’s time and in heaven’s time. The Holy Father’s closest friends acknowledged to Weigel that they couldn’t fully “know” him — not because he was emotionally distant, but because of his fathomless vision and experience of things seen and unseen.
We know Pope John Paul II visited “129 different countries” and that his “magisterium, collected in the Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, fills 50 large folio volumes and covers almost a dozen linear feet of library shelf space: 14 encyclicals, 14 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions, 45 apostolic letters.”
But as we attempt to grab hold of this extraordinary legacy, we confront something far more powerful that really can’t be quantified: the faith, hope and love of a believing Christian.
The man who in his final days struggled helplessly to speak seemed to draw all of humanity to his deathbed for one final good-bye. Why did we linger in St. Peter’s Square or pray for him in our parish church or watch the solemn scene unfold on television?
Weigel offers myriad explanations, but one makes sense to this reader: John Paul’s charism of “spiritual paternity … accompanying another in the dramatic gap between the person I am today and the person my human and Christian destiny calls me to be.”
At the advent of the 21st century, this Pope “from a far country” stirred our desire to find our own path to “the Father’s House.”
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.