Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II
by George Weigel
HarperCollins. 992 pp. $35.00
It can be argued that Pope John Paul II is the outstanding world figure in the twilight of the 20th century, the man who set his mark most strongly on its final decades. Still with us, an old gentleman once hearty but now frail and beset by ailments, he is grimly determined not only to see in the new millennium but to carry on his taxing schedule until death takes him. If he has any choice in the matter, he will undoubtedly die on his feet with his Polish boots on, in full canonical regalia, clutching the crosier he uses for support when celebrating a three-hour mass for a half-million people before St. Peter’s in Rome.
In the providential destruction of the evil empire of Communism—with his native Poland being the first, pivotal stone to fall—John Paul played a leading role. It was perhaps the determining role, more important even than that of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. George Weigel examines that role minutely in this huge, authoritative tome, revealing much that is new about the history of Eastern Europe in our time. That alone would be reason to recommend his book. But Weigel also deals in detail, and always rewardingly, with countless other matters as well.
John Paul has already reigned longer than any other pontiff in this century—he celebrated his twentieth anniversary as pope a year ago—and he has set his stamp on every aspect of his billion-strong church. Among other things, he has produced the most comprehensive catechism of the Catholic faith ever written, and his encyclicals cover every facet of Christian doctrine and moral theology. These latter are sinewy tracts, not easy to read—the Pope was trained as a philosopher in the dense vernacular of Husserlian phenomenology. But they are worth the effort, being full of meat and, especially, devoid of the ecumenical, progressivist, lowest-common-denominator waffle that today is the familiar fare of senior churchmen everywhere. There is nothing in these documents to bring the smallest comfort to liberal Christians who want to turn faith into an easy option. To the contrary: cumulatively, the encyclicals amount to a manifesto against the modern world in its most hateful, corrupt, and spiritually debilitating aspects.
But that is not all. This writing Pope has published two new codes of canon law, nine apostolic constitutions, 51 formal epistles, nine apostolic exhortations, 600 formal addresses, and thousands of discourses. According to Weigel, the printed record of his teachings takes up ten feet of shelf space, and this does not include his 15,000 statements to groups received in general and special audiences. And then there are the fruits of the Pope’s famous travels. The first pontiff ever to try to visit systematically all 325 parishes of his own Rome diocese, he has also made 134 pastoral visits inside Italy and 84 foreign pilgrimages, covering almost three-quarters of a million miles and delivering in the process over 30,000 discourses to hundreds of millions of people.
Nor is that all. John Paul has personally established a number of new Catholic institutes, academies, foundations, and university faculties, and has created 159 cardinals, 2,650 bishops (out of a world total of 4,200), and more saints than any of his predecessors. He has also tried, with mixed results, to sort out the Jesuits, the Dominicans, and the Dutch episcopate, as well as many other knotty internal problems of the Church. When it comes to external affairs, he has established full diplomatic relations with 64 countries (bringing the Vatican’s total to 168), and maintained active negotiations with every major religious group in the world.
These are hands-on activities, for the most part performed personally. To anyone who has seen the Pope in action, it is apparent that he puts a lot of thought into everything he does. There is nothing slapdash about him, no cue cards; it is all genuine hard slog.
The net effect of this steady, crowded activity has been considerable. During the pontificate of Paul VI (1963-78), the Catholic Church had come close to skidding off the rails. John Paul got it back on track and has kept it there during two difficult decades. True, despite his efforts, much damage has been done to Catholicism even during these years, but the worst dangers have been averted. He has demonstrated the truth of Evelyn Waugh’s axiom that there is no such thing as the spirit of an age if enough people resist it.
That is an important lesson for the 21st century to ponder. For, in showing within his own church how the supposedly irresistible forces of liberalism can be halted and even reversed, John Paul has set an example to all religious bodies, including Judaism. And this brings me to another great value of George Weigel’s book: its evocation of John Paul’s attitude to Jews and Judaism.
The Jewish community of Rome is itself one of the oldest in the world, and it has witnessed the evolution of the papacy since St. Peter’s day. Over the centuries, most popes protected the Jews of Rome for practical reasons, some humiliated them, one or two befriended them. John XXIII, who in the early 1960’s convened the Second Vatican Council, once stopped his car so that he could bless the Roman Jews on their way from Sabbath worship. (It was the second Vatican Council that in 1965 published the document Nostra Aetate, stating that the Catholic Church, “mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews . . . decries hatred, persecutions [and] displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and by anyone.”) On April 13, 1986, John Paul went further, becoming the first pope in two millennia to attend the Rome synagogue to meet the Jewish community.
To the sentiment of “intense satisfaction” expressed on this occasion by the chief rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, John Paul replied that the Jews had been called by God “with an irrevocable calling”; that Catholics could not think about their faith without thinking of Judaism; and that “the Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us but in a certain sense is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion.” The relationship of Catholicism with the Jews, said the Pope, was quite different from that with any other religion: “You are our dearly beloved brothers . . . it could be said that you are our elder brothers.” Hoping for a resumption of dialogue to ponder jointly the mystery of divine election and providence, he ended by reciting Psalm 118, “His steadfast love endures for ever.”
Weigel fills in the background. John Paul’s upbringing in Poland had been, he suggests, philo-Semitic: his father had urged tolerance, his parish priest had taught him that anti-Semitism was forbidden by the Gospels, and he had enjoyed friendships with Jews and forged even stronger emotional bonds as a witness to Nazi oppression. Weigel also describes in great detail the personal intervention by John Paul that in December 1993 finally brought about the “Fundamental Agreement” between the Vatican and the state of Israel, providing for full diplomatic relations. It was far from easy: as Shlomo Gur, one of the Israeli negotiators, put it, both sides “were carrying 2,000 years of Jewish and Christian history, very complicated, on our backs.”
Yet John Paul does not appear to find this “very complicated” history a daunting burden. In a sense he even seems to relish it, as a kind of providentially mandated entanglement. This is so even at moments of high tension, as on the visit of President Kurt Waldheim of Austria to the Vatican after it became known that Waldheim had lied about his complicity in atrocities committed while he served in a Nazi military unit in World War II, or during the controversies over the proposed Carmelite convent at Auschwitz or the beatification of Edith Stein, the Jewish-born woman who became a Catholic before dying in Auschwitz, in the Pope’s words, “as a daughter of Israel . . . and at the same time as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.”
It is safe to say that John Paul continues to be obsessed with the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, as well as with (again in his words) “a history full of deep wounds, wounds that still hurt.” To the logical mind it is impossible to reconcile the two religions. After all, if Jesus was the son of God, then the Jews have been mistaken for two millennia; if Jesus was not the son of God, then the whole of Christianity is a delusion. But John Paul seems to believe that, in God’s unfathomable wisdom, an answer to this seemingly insoluble dilemma will eventually emerge, and I for one cannot but share that belief.
All popes must die eventually, but one can only wish some years yet to this grand old man of religion. As George Weigel’s magnificent record of a rich and busy pontificate shows, they will not be wasted.