National Catholic Register

Vatican

Weigel’s Adventures and Surprises As Biographer of the Holy Father

BY Jim Cosgrove

October 24-30, 1999 Issue | Posted 10/24/99 at 1:00 PM

 

SEATTLE—George Weigel has provided readers of diocesan papers nationwide an inside look at the making of his biography of Pope John Paul II.

In a series of four syndicated weekly columns that ends Oct. 26, the Witness to Hope author tells the story of how he came to write a story that understands the “outsider” Polish Bishop of Rome from “inside.”

He also provides some color from the making of the biography. In the installment dated Oct. 26, he ends his series with “Adventures of a Papal Biographer,” adventures which include enduring Krakow without heat, getting locked out of the Vatican and involved in a scheme to wake the Swiss guards, and trying to flag down John Paul and his secretary in Cuba to get a ride after getting separated from travel companions.

Kay Lagreid, editor of The Catholic Northwest Progress, which originates the column, said in a statement, “The series is intended to help introduce readers of the Catholic press to four aspects of” the biography: “how it happened, what is different about it, what the surprises were and the author's adventures in writing the book.”

How It Happened

In the first column, released Oct. 5, Weigel told the story about how his conversations with papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls and the Pope led to his being chosen as biographer. He and the spokesman ticked off the qualifications of several candidates, including himself, he wrote.

“As I thought about a possible role in such a project, certain aspects of my own life began to seem less random,” he wrote. “I had been active at the intersection of Catholicism and public life for 20 years. I had studied philosophy and theology. I had written the first book proposing that John Paul had been the key figure in the collapse of European communism. I knew Poland fairly well, loved the Pope's ‘beloved Krakow,’ and had good contacts there. I had spent a fair amount of time in Rome, and thought I knew something about what worked — and didn't — in that singular environment. All of this, on reflection, seemed to point toward a certain resolution.”

He went on to describe the dinner conversation with Pope John Paul II, where the final decision was made.

The dinner also included Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine.

“The conversation … was entirely natural, full of jokes and banter. In the course of it, the question of a full-scale papal biography, and me as the biographer, came up again. The Holy Father changed the subject, but while he was ruminating aloud on something else I could see that his mind was working on the previous questions. He then shifted conversational gears again and made it rather vigorously clear that, in his view, I should write his biography and the history of his pontificate.”

What's Different in the Book?

The second part of the series, said Lagreid, is meant to introduce readers to what is different about the book.

Weigel explains his intention to write about the Pope as a Christian disciple rather than as a statesman.

“One of the most moving examples of this in Witness to Hope is the previously untold story of the Pope's acting as a kind of confessor to the internationally revered Soviet dissident, Andrei Sakharov. I shall save that tale for the book, but I can mention here the run-up to their historic meeting, which was the Pope's prior conversation with Sakharov's wife, Elena Bonner, while Sakharov was in internal exile in Gorky.

“Elena Bonner was a very, very tough woman, a veteran human rights campaigner who had withstood intense physical and psychological pressures from the KGB. After two hours of conversation with the Pope, she came out of the meeting in tears, saying, ‘He's the most remarkable man I've ever met. He is all light. He is a source of light.’”

Surprises

In his Oct. 19 column, Weigel turned his attention to “surprises” in his book.

In addition to the unexpected way the Pope has kept up his friendships with acquaintances from his youth, “I was surprised,” he writes, “to learn the vast amount of time John Paul II has put into meeting with the world's bishops.”

During the pontificate of Paul VI, Weigel pointed out, a bishop on his quinquennial ad limina visit to Rome had a single, 15-minute encounter with the pope.

“John Paul quadrupled the number of encounters to four— a private meeting, a meal together; a concelebrated Mass; and, until 1995, a papal address to all the bishops making the ad limina from a given country or region. (Since 1995, the address has been delivered in written form to each bishop, as a kind of personal letter from the Pope.)”

He added, “The charge that John Paul is out of touch with the world's bishops is going to have to conjure a bit more with the empirical evidence … [he] has invested more time meeting with the world's bishops … than in meeting any other group of people.”