Pope St. John Paul II’s biographer, George Weigel, is well known for having written two seminal works on the late pontiff, but in a new book, he offers the reader something more: a behind-the-scenes, more-intimate portrait of the canonized Polish pope.
In Lessons in Hope, Weigel recounts his conversations with John Paul over a decade and a half, how he came to write the authoritative biography, and reflects on what he learned from the Polish saint.
On a visit to Rome, Weigel sat down with the National Catholic Register’s Rome correspondent, Edward Pentin, Dec. 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, to discuss how the hand of Providence was clear in bringing him and John Paul together in the mid-1990s.
He also discusses how the Pope gave “lessons in hope” — to make a difference, rather than surrendering to the mentality that things are the “way they are and you can’t do anything about it.”
The American biographer also shares an anecdote of being introduced to John Paul’s “spy in Russia” and what John Paul II would probably say of the situation in the Church today.
It’s really a response to what I learned when I was out promoting The End and the Beginning, which is that people wanted stories, anecdotes, some way for this great figure to come alive again. I thought that doing that would help fulfill the promise I made to John Paul II on Dec. 15, 2004, which was that, if he didn’t bury me, I would finish what I had started. I thought I had kept that promise with The End and the Beginning, but then my readers and lecture audiences taught me that I was wrong, that there was more to do. And that prompted me to write Lessons in Hope, which is a very different kind of book. It’s not a scholarly biography; it’s anecdotal and personal. And I hope it satisfies people’s desire to feel personally connected to this great figure again.
You talk about “providential coincidences” in the book. Could you explain a little more what you meant by that?
“In the designs of Providence, there are no coincidences”: That’s what John Paul II said at Fatima a year after the assassination attempt came within a few millimeters of taking his life. What he meant was that, while the world may have thought that his being shot on the liturgical memorial of Our Lady of Fatima was mere coincidence, he didn’t think so; as he often put it, “One hand fired, and another guided, the bullet.” And that was how he read his whole life.
In Gift and Mystery, his vocational memoir, he wrote about the experience of his fellow clandestine seminarian, Jerzy Zachuta, and others being killed in the Second World War, murdered by the Nazis, and he asked himself: “Why were they taken, and why do I remain?” Over the course of a lifetime, he came to understand there was a reason for that; Providence was in charge, and there were no mere coincidences. Things happened for a reason. The distinctive way he read his own life taught me how to rethink my own experiences in the 44 years before I had the idea of writing his biography.
I came to see that things that seemed random, circumstantial or mere happenstance at the time were in fact remote preparations for taking on the project that became Witness to Hope. And that’s the first quarter of the book [Lessons in Hope] — an album of memories of those things that, one way or another, prepared me for being the Pope’s biographer. They did so in ways I couldn’t have imagined — when, for example, I was working with congressmen to pry Lithuanian priests and nuns out of the gulag in the 1980s. That later helped me understand John Paul II’s important impact in a small country, to which I otherwise might not have paid much attention. Then there were my undergraduate and graduate studies in philosophy and theology, which I did for their own sake at the time, but which were also crucial preparations for explaining the mind of John Paul II. Who knew, when I was hacking my way through the thickets of [20th-century German philosopher] Edmund Husserl in 1972 that I would be explaining what Husserl meant in the mind of the Pope 25 years later?
How did the idea come about to do the biography?
It actually goes back to Tad Szulc’s biography of the Pope, published in 1995. It was a dreadful book, full of errors of fact and bizarre interpretations. As a liberal Catholic wrote of that book: “It’s like a biography of Michael Jordan written by someone who knows nothing about basketball.” And it occurred to me while I was reading this that I could do the job better. I wrote a very long and tough review of Szulc, which was quickly translated into Polish, and that came to the attention of John Paul II and [then- Msgr. Stanislaw] Dziwisz [John Paul’s long-serving private secretary]. Dziwisz wrote me a long letter agreeing with my critique of Szulc’s book, which reaffirmed my sense that I could do something better. Then I suggested my doing a biographical project to Joaquin Navarro-Valls [John Paul’s press secretary] in June 1995, and […] the Pope made it clear in December 1995 he thought it would be a good idea if I, in fact, did it.
How long was the process of writing?
I started working on Witness to Hope full time in September 1996, although I’d worked part time on it in the spring and summer of 1996. I spend 15 months doing nothing but research, and that was the best decision I made: not to write anything for over a year, but to step back, get all the material I could, and then see what Henry James used to refer to as “the figures in the carpet” begin to emerge in a fresh way — which they did. I wrote the first draft in 11 months, and then there were intense months of reshaping the manuscript and cutting it down. The original manuscript was 2,200 double-spaced pages, and about a quarter of that was whittled away, primarily involving long citations from documents. But the idea from the beginning was to be as comprehensive as possible in a book that normal people could read.
You call this new book Lessons in Hope — why is that?
Because, thinking back now, in the retrospect of the 12 years since he died, that was the fundamental lesson he taught me: “Never to concede to the tyranny of the possible” — the notion that some things are just the way they are and you can’t do anything about it. John Paul taught me, and all of us, not to give in to that tyranny, to have confidence in the capacity of truth to change situations for the better. Things can be changed, if we submit ourselves to grace and use the gifts we’ve been given.
You’ve said the German intellectual Catholics didn’t get John Paul II. Could you explain more about that?
I wrote a special foreword for the German edition of Witness to Hope in which I frankly engaged in a bit of fraternal correction: I suggested that the German-speaking Catholic world had missed something engaging and interesting and important because it was blind to the fact that John Paul II was not some pre-modern intellect, but in fact had a thoroughly modern mind with a different reading of modernity — and a different way of answering the crisis of modernity than surrendering to it. I think that’s still a problem today.
How did your friendship develop with John Paul over the years? How did you see that change, and him change?
He took a great interest in my family. I think he trusted me more and more over time. When we had our first real conversation in 1992, I think he thought: “This is someone who understands the dynamics of the revolution of 1989 the way I do, that this was morally driven, culturally driven, etc.” But I think the relationship was far more than that, especially in the last years, when he, in some sense, invited me into his weakness.
In Lessons in Hope, I describe in the book how awful he felt at the beginning of his silver jubilee, when he was in a very bad patch with the Parkinson’s disease. And on one occasion he couldn’t even speak to me, but just looked at me, and I could read his eyes, “saying” in sorrow rather than in anger: “See what is happening to me.” I think you only do that with people who you think will understand what you’re “saying.”
Then there’s that scene in the new book when I gave him Witness to Hope at Castel Gandolfo. At the end of dinner, he drew me into this big bear hug and just wouldn’t let go, for what seemed like two minutes. So I think he was grateful for what he had done, for as the different language editions came out, I somehow helped him travel the world in a way that was less and less possible for him.
I’m still struck by the fact, of the 14 language editions, the two he pushed me to get done were the German one (for, I imagine, the reasons we’ve just discussed) and the Chinese — because I think he knew he wasn’t going to get there, and this was how he could “go” in a different way.
Would you like to share one of the anecdotes in the book?
One of the reasons why John Paul II was a great and effective pope was because he deliberately looked for sources of information outside the normal channels: the nuncios, the bishops’ conferences and the Roman Curia. And one of the most extraordinary examples of that was Irena Ilovaiskaya Alberti, whom he met in the early 1980s, completely coincidentally or providentially. They struck up a friendship, and she became a kind of “secret agent” for him in the collapsing Soviet Union, then later in post-communist Russia. And he then pushed me to meet her, telling me in April 1998, “You have to talk with my friend, Mrs. Alberti.” And when she and I met, she had obviously been given the signal, presumably by Stanislaw Dziwisz; the tales she told, not least about helping facilitate John Paul’s meetings with [dissidents] Elena Bonner and Andrei Sakharov, were fascinating. She was not a sycophant — she disagreed with the Pope in his reading of Gorbachev, as did I. I also think he hoped that there might be more possibilities for breakthroughs with Russian Orthodoxy than she thought likely, although she fully understood his determination to press whatever openings were there. But he was not a fool about Russia, the Russian [Orthodox] Church and the Russian regime, and I think he would have been as disappointed as we all are with what has happened there over the last 20 years.
What would John Paul make of the current crisis in the Church?
I think what John Paul would say to the Church today is what he once said when asked, “What is the most important word in the New Testament?” He said instantaneously, “Truth.”
Not love and charity?
They’re all important, but truth informs love and mercy, so that love and mercy do not, as Benedict wrote in Caritas in Veritate, descend into sentimentality. Truth is liberating. John Paul II deeply believed in the liberating power of truth. He believed that as a disciple, and he believed that as an intellectual. That’s something the Church badly needs to be reminded of today — and always.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Edward Pentin is the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register.