LESSONS IN HOPE
My Unexpected Life With
St. John Paul II
By George Weigel
Basic Books, 2017
368 pages, $32
Journalist Paul Harvey’s particular hook was “the rest of the story” — the personal angle to the news that didn’t make the 30 seconds the item got on the evening broadcast. His program always ended with: “And now you know the rest of the story.”
With George Weigel’s latest book, “Now you know the rest of the story.” Weigel’s earlier books, Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning, tell the story of John Paul II and the start of his legacy. Lessons in Hope is the story behind those stories, about how the lives of Karol Wojtyła and George Weigel crossed paths.
“Each man’s life touches so many other lives,” observes the angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life. Some might explain that by mere facts: George Weigel’s 1992 book, The Final Revolution (which rightly shows how much the triumph of freedom in 1989 owes to John Paul II), caught the Vatican’s eye. Some would also add the role of Providence: Was it merely “coincidence” that, back in 1960, Weigel’s school made its Lenten devotion praying for the conversion of communist dictators and little George’s third-grade class drew Polish party boss Władysław Gomułka?
What the Vatican saw about Final Revolution was a thinker who finally “got” what John Paul was about. Weigel captured what made the saint tick: “John Paul II mused about other biographers and their attempts to tell the story of his life. ‘They try to understand me from the outside, but I can only be understood from inside.’ There was neither anger nor hostility in the remark; the Pope’s comment was wistful, almost sad. Which was quite in character, I learned. Throughout the quarter-century of his papacy, he never played the demagogue and never lost the pastor’s touch: that passion for the care of souls. John Paul II wanted to be understood, not for his own sake, but so that others could experience what he had experienced as the power of God working through him. How to get into that rich interior life, and then relate it to his teaching and his action in the Church and the world, was the challenge involved in preparing his biography.”
This book tells the story behind writing that biography: the people, the interviews and the travel. One cannot have written a book like Witness without talking to a lot of people, from pre-papal friends in Poland to Curial functionaries in the Holy See. Weigel shares their human sides.
He also situates his years with Wojtyła against what was taking place in the larger Church and world, like the “Long Lent” of 2002, when the depth of ecclesiastical rot over sexual abuse became public in the U.S. Catholic Church, and the run-up to the Iraq War.
Wojtyła’s story does not stop in 2005. Lessons, for example, details Weigel’s study, after Wojtyła’s death, of how communist intelligence services tried to bring the Polish bishop and pope down. Weigel also reminds us of a fundamental Catholic belief: the communion of saints.
Weigel’s writings repeatedly return to how the Church has (or hasn’t) incorporated the legacy of St. John Paul the Great. That story is ongoing, and Weigel continues a lively engagement in it.
John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., writes from Falls Church, Virginia.