It was Good Friday 2005, and Pope John Paul II was too weak to attend the Way of the Cross at the Colosseum, an 18th century tradition reestablished by Pope Paul VI in 1964. His aides brought in a TV as a means of participation, and he watched the throng of people meditate on the passion, holding candles in the dark against the domineering Roman arches.
A now iconic photo of that night was shot from behind the pontiff, his head down, hugging a crucifix.
Days after the photo was published, reporters quizzed George Weigel, whose 1999 biography of Pope John Paul II “Witness to Hope” was an international bestseller: Was the aged, suffering pope too sick to show his face?
The reporters didn’t get it, Weigel told a large audience at the University of St. Thomas Oct. 4. Pope John Paul II’s life was never about him — it was always about Jesus Christ. That photo, with the pope’s face obscured and the crucifix prominent, spoke to this message, as did the final months and days of his life, where the world witnessed the pope embrace his suffering, as he embraced that crucifix. He died eight days later.
In his new book, “The End and the Beginning” (Doubleday, 2010), Weigel calls Pope John Paul II’s dying his “last encyclical.” A sequel to “Witness to Hope,” the new book covers the last six years of the pope’s life and offers a rich perspective on his legacy, and the events that shaped it.
The Catholic Spirit asked Weigel, distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., about the book before his St. Thomas lecture “Pope John Paul II: An Assessment and Appreciation,” which was sponsored by the Center for Catholic Studies.
TCS: When “Witness to Hope” came out in 1999, were you expecting to write a second book from the beginning?
GW: Yes. I had intended to do the whole story, if I were given the opportunity to do so, and I promised the late pope that I would do that when we had dinner together in December 2004. So this book is, in some sense, a fulfillment of that promise to him, but it’s also something that I had intended to do at the beginning of this whole business in 1995.
TCS: At that point, did you expect that his last six years would offer so much to write about?
GW: He was a man of constant surprises, so one would have expected there would be a lot more. Obviously, in 1999 when “Witness to Hope” came out, there was the whole Jubilee Year [in 2000] that would have to be contended with, but no one could have predicted 9/11, or the “Long Lent” of 2002 [the American bishops’ months-long public penance of the sex-abuse scandal], or the Iraq War, or any of the things I deal with in “The End and the Beginning.”
After the pope died, I decided to take some time to reflect on all of this, and to get materials together and whatnot, but it was during that period, from 2005 to 2008, that the real surprise of this came, and that was coming into possession of materials given to me by Polish historians, colleagues, which paint a remarkable portrait of the communist war against Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) — the communist attempt to penetrate the Vatican, and so forth. I decided in 2008 that we were going to have to go back through certain aspects of the life of John Paul II.
TCS: So those documents came near the end of your research for the book?
GW: In 2007, 2008.
TCS: Did you know if anything existed before then?
GW: I knew that there had been a lot of attempts to impede the work of the church, but I think that the surprises in this material is the absolute, utter magnitude of this. We’re talking about tens of millions of man hours in effort and billions upon billions of dollars over a period of 40 years to impede the work of the church in eastern Europe, to diminish and demean its leadership, to penetrate the Vatican, to — after John Paul II became pope — impede his work as pope.
And this includes some pretty unpleasant stuff, including an effort to blackmail the pope prior to the 1983 papal visit to Poland. . . . and any other number of dramatic things. So you end up with a book, the first third of which, several people have said, reads like a spy novel, to which I always say, “Yeah, but this happened.” This is non-fiction, this is fact, and the documents are sitting in my safe at home. That was a bit of a surprise.
TCS: Were there any other surprises that you came across?
GW: I have to say in those materials, and in talking with people about those, the degree to which the Vatican, prior to John Paul II, seemed either unaware of or unconcerned about efforts to get into it [the Vatican] by these communist inteligence services — recruit agents, plant agents, steal documents, influence negotiations. It’s quite remarkable. They had no counter-inteligence capability whatsoever, and they didn’t seem particularly concerned to have one.
TCS: Tell me about the title of the book, “The End and the Beginning.”
GW: “The End and the Beginning” is obviously a reference to T.S. Eliot and the Four Quartets, where Eliot says, “In my end is my beginning.”
TCS: How do you see that applying to the life of John Paul II?
GW: John Paul II described his death as his beginning, as his passover to a new life. I suppose there’s another way it works in this context, and that is that we’re talking about the end of his earthly life, as well as the beginning of his papacy through the prism of these documents.
I think “the end and the beginning” also conveys a sense of the remarkable consistency of the Pope’s life, that the end of his life and the beginning of his new life in his father’s house, as he put it, was all in continuity with the beginnings of his Christian life and the way he had lived that for more than eight decades.
TCS: How did your view of Pope John Paul II’s papacy change as you wrote this second book, given the further reflection you gave to it?
GW: There was a brief summary of the accomplishment to date at the end of “Witness to Hope,” but in this book there is a 130-page analysis of the man and his accomplishments, so obviously, a lot of thoughts occurred in the course of that.
But I have to say that I’m also powerfully impressed by the degree to which there were these constant threads throughout 26-and-a-half years. of which perhaps the brightest, thickest thread in the tapestry was this idea that the church is a mission; the church doesn’t simply have a mission. Church exists for the proclamation of the Gospel, to invite people to discipleship, to invite people into friendship with the Lord, and that continues, and indeed, continues to the very end, where his last priestly service to the church and the world is to invite people into an experience of the Paschal Mystery through his experience of dying.
TCS: You describe as his “last encyclical” the experience of the world watching him die. Can you explain what people may have been taught through this?
GW: They were taught a lesson that he had attempted to convey in his magisterium of life issues, that there are no disposable human beings. I hope people were taught that. I hope people were taught that configuring one’s own suffering to the cross ennobles that suffering and gives it meaning beyond which human effort cannot go. I think it taught the lesson of conforming one’s self to the will of God, and not resisting that, or whining about it, but simply accepting that, and accepting that with cheer, with good humor.
Joaquín Navarro, who was the pope’s spokesmen for many, many years, was asked a year after the pope died if he could describe him in a phrase. And he said, “l’uomo allegro,” in Italian — “a cheerful man.” And that’s the kind of good cheer, good humor, if you will, that comes from faith.
I would also say that he was a happy warrior. He was embattled on many fronts, whether it was communism or the culture of death. He was a happy warrior, and he invited other people into a kind of cheerful “jeux de combat” (combat games). Churchill says, it isn’t quite as exhilarating as getting shot having them miss. It’s something like that, I suppose.
John Paul II was a man who believed that God’s purposes were going to be vindicated in the fullness of time, so he could be both very intent about his own work and ministry, but also relaxed, in the sense of not fretting about outcomes, because he knew that the outcomes eventually were not of his disposition.
TCS: Obviously he was beloved by people beyond the Catholic Church. You mentioned his cheerful disposition. What other attributes do you think people were so attracted to?
GW: I think there was a transparent honesty to the man. There was his ability to invite people into an experience of God, and an experience of prayer. And he was just a wonderful human being. He was very good company, and he was a man intensely interested in others.
TCS: He was much beloved by young people, especially in a way that they had probably never loved a pope before in history as a collective group. And, he obviously had a special place in his heart for young people, and had much faith in what they could do. Why is this?
GW: I think that the answer to the question about John Paul II’s attraction to young people is not difficult to come by. Young people want to be challenged to lead lives of holiness, and in a culture that generally now panders to young people in advertising and dress, whatever, this unapologetic challenge to lead large lives was very, very compelling.
The other thing is what I said a moment ago — this luminous transparent honesty. Kids have very good baloney detectors, and there was no baloney. He wasn’t asking kids to do anything that he hadn’t done, and there was nothing false about it.
That combination of transparent honesty and challenge made for a very compelling package.
TCS: In his review of your book for the journal “First Things,” [Center for Catholic Studies director] Don Briel wrote, “Perhaps John Paul’s significance lies in the fact that he provided a way to interpret the watershed event of the Second Vatican Council.” Do you see that as a good estimation of his papacy?
GW: The Second Vatican Council was unique among the 21 ecumenical councils of history, in that it didn’t provide keys to its own interpretation. Other councils had written creeds, written laws, anathematized people, condemned heresies — these are all ways for a particular council to tell you how to interpret itself. . . . There was none of that at Vatican II. This was a council without interpretative keys, and that’s what he provided for 26-and-a-half years.
TCS: In the last couple of years, we’ve seen a lot of criticism of John Paul II’s papacy due to the sex abuse scandal that we’re now learning was more rampant than it seems the pope himself knew. How do you look back on this in his papacy, and do you think the critics are being fair in their assessment?
GW: No, because very few critics are fair in these matters. The obsessing on this issue in parts of the Catholic world and in the mainstream media is, frankly, getting a little ridiculous.
However, there are two big things I would say about this. One is that John Paul II was a great reformer of the priesthood, which was in terrible shape in 1978 — tens of thousands of defections since the council, seminaries in complete disarray — and he changed a great deal of that over the next 25 years. He attracted, by his own example of the priesthood, young men who would not be abusive because of what they saw in him as a model of priestly life. He reformed seminaries.
It is not an accident that, in the United States at least, the great majority of abuse cases that came to light in 2002 were between the mid-to-late 60s and early 80s, which is to say during the the period of maximum confusion after the council, and this begins to tail off with the pontificate of John Paul II.
Now, having said all that, as I indicate in the book, and as I wrote in “The Courage to be Catholic” eight years ago, the Vatican and the pope were four months behind the information curve on all of this. They were finding out in April in 2002 things we were finding out in January 2002. That created an impression, which I believe is a false impression, that the pope was uninterested in this stuff, or didn’t care, or wasn’t paying attention. Once he had the information in hand he acted decisively.
But that they were four months behind the information curve, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. And that is primarily the fault of the nunciature in Washington at the time which was not keeping the pope adequately informed, and of a curia which tended to read all of this as a great media-driven hysteria.
And as I wrote about it at the time, in 2002, this was not the media’s crisis, this was the church’s crisis, and media had done the church a great service by compelling the church to deal with a set of issues it had not dealt with before.
TCS: You mentioned that there were many men who were drawn to the priesthood by the pope’s example. How do you think this is going to affect the priesthood in the next generation?
GW: I think we’ll see a lot of priests who want to model themselves after him. We see in his life a life of manliness, of fatherhood lived in a grand spiritual way. I see a lot of this change already, frankly, and I think he has a great deal to do with it. Cardinal [William Wakefield] Baum, former archbishop of Washington, once said that John Paul II was the greatest vocations director in history, and there’s a lot of truth in that.
TCS: Behind this book, behind the research, one of the very exciting things is that you had conversations with the Holy Father; you were able to see him as the man that he was, and not be back in the crowd. Not every biographer has that experience with the person about whom he is writing. When you think back to those conversations, what do you reflect on?
GW: He was a real pastor, he was always concerned about my family and whatnot.
My father died on Oct. 19, 2004, and the pope knew about this; in fact, he sent a telegram. When I saw him next in December 2004, he asked me how my mother was. Now, this is six weeks before he’s in the hospital for the last time. So, there was this sense of a pastor.
There was also this sense of sharing somewhat of his trials, and his suffering and so forth. It was not easy to see how difficult life had become for him, yet it was ennobling to see the spirit with which he dealt with that.
TCS: We’ve seen, within Catholic circles, the application of “The Great” to his name. Do you see the church ever officially attaching that to his name?
GW: No, that’s never official. That’s always been a spontaneous expression, whether it’s Leo the Great or Gregory the Great.
And yes, people were shouting that at the funeral Mass, and I expect that over time that will come to be the normal moniker. I don’t know.
TCS: What do you think is one of the most enduring accomplishments of John Paul II’s papacy?
GW: I think the thread that is woven throughout all of them (the great accomplishments) is, as I said a moment ago, is this notion that the church is a mission, the church doesn’t have a mission. The church doesn’t exist for its own maintenance. The church exists for the proclamation of the Gospel and the invitation of the world to friendship with Christ and following God through history and the path God is taking.
TCS: How do you think lay Catholics can respond to that in a practical way?
GW: The first thing they can do is start thinking about it, actually. I mean, I have never heard a sermon in which someone says what I think the whole life of John Paul II communicates: That Christianity is not about our search for God, it’s about God’s search for us, and our learning to take the same path through history that God is taking. That’s a very fine sermon topic that’s being played out over years, and indeed, decades. And if we were all thinking that way, the question of Where is God, and How can I follow, will become a much more regular part of the rhythm of our lives.
You go to big bookstores, and you just want to go crazy with this spirituality stuff — “My Search for God” and that sort of stuff — this is not biblical religion. Biblical religion is about God coming into history to look for us, first with the people of Israel, and then with his son.
TCS: What do you think — given a century from now, in his textbook paragraph blurb — Pope John Paul II will be most remembered for?
GW: I think that he will be recognized as the great Christian witness of the second half of the 20th century, as the pivotal figure in the collapse of European communism, and as one of the great teaching popes of history.