In his new book, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II, author George Weigel writes that Pope John Paul II once noted wistfully that the first biographers who attempted to tell the story of his life “try to understand me from the outside, but I can only be understood from inside.”
Weigel ultimately wrote a two-volume biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope and The End and The Beginning to help do just that, so that pope could be “understood from the inside” – not just from his impact as a global leader, but as a man of faith, whose brilliant mind, and most importantly his heart and soul, guided the words and actions of his papacy that spanned more than a quarter century, into the new millennium. Now in his new book, Weigel tells another inside story – his adventure in getting to know St. John Paul II and the people and places, especially from his beloved native country Poland, that shaped the pope’s life and work.
In Washington, Weigel serves as a distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies, and he is a longtime member of St. Jane de Chantal Parish in Bethesda, Maryland. Here is the text of an email interview that Mark Zimmermann, editor of the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, recently had with Weigel about Lessons in Hope.
Your new book, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II, struck me as a kind of “pilgrim’s progress” in your own life, that interweaves the story of your two earlier authoritative biographies of St. John Paul II, with the story of your own life, from being a Catholic schoolboy in Baltimore to becoming a husband, father, and noted writer and analyst on Catholic issues. How did the experience of researching and writing St. John Paul II’s life story impact your own Catholic faith?
Weigel: “I had the great good fortune to grow up in a strong Catholic family at the last moment of intact Catholic culture in urban America. Then I had another stroke of luck: being blessed by great teachers, from elementary school through graduate school, who helped intellectually deepen the faith to which I had been introduced by my parents and some fine priests. Spending almost a decade and a half with St. John Paul II certainly deepened the faith and commitment that were already there (as well as giving me a close look at the engine room of the Barque of Peter).”
As you embarked and continued on this adventure of chronicling St. John Paul II’s story, along the way what did you learn about him that surprised you the most?
Weigel: “I think the two things that most struck me when I was researching Witness to Hope were the crucial role John Paul’s father played in his life, and the absolutely decisive experience that the Second World War was for him. Then, when I was researching The End and the Beginning and studying formerly top-secret communist secret police memoranda that had become available, I was struck by both the viciousness of the communist assault on Karol Wojtyla in Cracow and in Rome, and by the degree to which the Vatican had been penetrated by communist secret intelligence services. Beyond all of that, I was continually surprised and impressed by the variety and exceptional human qualities of the cast of characters that John Paul II drew to himself, which I’m able to describe in much more detail in a more informal book like Lessons in Hope.”
St. John Paul II’s earlier life as a seminarian, priest and bishop was forged in an especially painful era in Poland’s history as his country suffered first under Nazi occupation and then under communism as a satellite country of the Soviet Union. How do you think that formation prepared him to become such a consequential leader for the Catholic Church as it entered the new millennium?
Weigel: “Poland, the state, disappeared from the map of Europe for 123 years, but the Polish nation survived with enough vigor to give birth to a new Polish state in 1918. That happened through the vitality of Polish culture – language, literature, Catholic faith. What John Paul II learned from that was that culture is the most dynamic and determinative force in history over the long haul. And he deployed that conviction in June 1979, during his first pilgrimage to Poland, in ways that launched the revolution of conscience that led to the political Revolution of 1989 and the self-liberation of east central Europe.”
Your biographies of St. John Paul II, Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning, were preceded by your earlier book about the impact that the pope’s moral leadership had on the liberation of Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe from the grip of communism. What message did the Holy Father offer them about freedom and human dignity that helped spark this revolution that was unlike any other in history?
Weigel: “He gave his people back the truth about themselves, confident that living in that truth would eventually give rise to tools of resistance that communism could not match. And that’s exactly what happened with the rise of Solidarity and similar movements through east central Europe.”
I found your description of St. John Paul II’s pastoral ministry to young people as a priest and bishop in Poland, and his lifelong friendship with so many of them, an especially poignant part of Lessons in Hope, and you make the point that this was the genesis of what would one day evolve into his World Youth Days, reaching out to the young on a global scale. What threads do you see connecting his outreach to the young as a priest and later as pope?
Weigel: “In a very real sense, what we know as World Youth Day began in Cracow in the late 1940s, in Father Karol Wojtyla’s strikingly retail chaplaincy to university students. He literally went door to door in dormitories and apartment blocks, rounding up students and then forming them into a network of friendship and solidarity that continues to this day. That’s when he came to believe that young people want to be challenged to leads lives of heroic virtue; that’s when the conversations that eventually became his book Love and Responsibility and his Theology of the Body began. It was a remarkable exchange of gifts: a priest forming mature young Catholics, those young Catholics forming him into a dynamic, creative pastor.”
I was also very moved by your descriptions of St. John Paul II’s prayer life. How do you explain what seems like a dichotomy of sorts – his public, charismatic presence on his world travels, and his quiet, intense life of private prayer in his chapel?
Weigel: “The one enabled and empowered the other. You could see this with him at great public Masses: He would withdraw into himself – better, into a deep personal conversation with the Lord – and then ‘come back’ such that his public presence made everyone think he was speaking to them personally, even in the largest crowds. He really did live from the inside out; his intense prayer was the engine of everything else.”
Your book also offers a very moving description of how over the more than quarter century of his papacy, a once vibrant, athletic pope became frail in his old age, seemingly illustrating what he wrote about the dignity of human life in all its stages in his encyclical, The Gospel of Life. What did you find most inspiring about this witness of St. John Paul II?
Weigel: “His vulnerability, and his willingness to share that with others, because he believed he was embracing the Cross and bearing witness through his suffering to the power of the Cross.”
You wrote a triptych of books about St. John Paul II, and I’d like to end this interview with a trio of questions about him as a role model. First, what can today’s Church leaders learn from his life and ministry, how can they emulate him?
Weigel: “John Paul II embodied the great Catholic ‘both/and’ in a powerful way, in his teaching and his pastoral practice: faith andreason, truth and mercy, accompaniment and challenge. At a moment like ours today, when there’s a temptation to collapse one part of the equation into the other, John Paul’s ‘both/and’ is an important example for all pastors – and indeed for all Catholics.”
Our Saint John Paul II Seminary in the Archdiocese of Washington is named for this pope and saint. How can the seminarians studying there, and the future priests formed there, follow their patron saint’s example?
Weigel: “By being open to the holiness that is available in all walks of life; by knowing and understanding the teaching of the Church so that they can express it in homilies, in the confessional, and in teaching and counseling; and by imitating his dependence on the Lord in his intense prayer.”
You wrote how at Pope John Paul II’s Funeral Mass, people in the crowd began spontaneously shouting Santo Subito – Italian for “Sainthood now!” What can today’s Catholics learn from his life, how can he be a role model to them?
Weigel: “John Paul II believed that sanctity is all around us; we just need to learn to recognize it. The Church doesn’t propose impossible “ideals.” The Church proposes the truths that Christ left it as his final gift to his friends – and then helps weak and sinful human beings, which all of us are, to strive to live those truths and share them with others. If each of us thinks of ourselves as called-and-forgiven missionary disciples, we’ll be living as John Paul II called us to live.”