Ethics & Public Policy Center

Man of the Centuries

Published in National Review Online on November 10, 2017


In 1999, Time magazine chose Albert Einstein as its “Person of the Century.”

Five years later, when Pope John Paul II died, Henry Kissinger remarked that it would be hard to imagine anyone who had had a greater impact upon the 20th century than the great Polish pope, who (as of 2014) is officially a saint and resides in a heaven unacknowledged in Einstein’s physics.

What was the right answer about the Most Significant Person of the 20th Century — Albert Einstein or Pope St. John Paul II?

The interjection of John Paul II seems a little odd now. John Paul and Einstein were apples and oranges, anyway, although of the highest order. John Paul II was canonized for the miracle of his character, which was, in turn, the secret of his historical force. Einstein is revered for the miracle of his mind.

Each was the prophet of a universe incomprehensible to the other. Einstein described a new and perversely frolicsome reality, alien to us and, in its nuclear expressions, fatal, and, one might say, satanic.

And yet Einstein, too, was a sort of saint.

John Paul II was no doubt firmer than Einstein in his faith that God does not play dice with the universe.

John Paul II’s life and work dramatized — and, by his example, clarified — the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. Einstein was not concerned with virtues as such. He was a mystic of the material universe — a saint of the scientific mind, transcendent.

The Einstein–or–John Paul question occurred to me while reading George Weigel’s new book, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II (Basic Books). Weigel, the author of a two-volume biography of John Paul II and one of the world’s best-informed authorities on the Catholic Church, has returned to John Paul now in a less formal, more personal way.

Weigel calls it “an album of memories”:

That yearning to get to know more personally a saint who bent the course of history in a humane direction and to know him in ways that didn’t quite fit the genre of serious biography, struck me as the impulse that inspired the informal “lives of the saints” over the centuries.

John Paul II and George Weigel became friends. After the pope’s death, Weigel was summoned to be an official witness in the beatification/canonization proceedings in Rome. The author employs something of Boswell’s method in rendering the portrait of his saint, Samuel Johnson — luncheons and dinners, anecdotes, conversation, the pope gently joking, the ex-athlete robust or ailing, suddenly tired, and endlessly (a striking motif) rising from table and excusing himself to go off to the chapel to pray.

Samuel Johnson bantered and pontificated with Boswell and Gibbon and Goldsmith and Langdon and the rest, and Boswell took it all down in his role as recording secretary; but in Weigel’s story, the great man’s most significant conversations are those that occur after lunch or dinner, offstage, between John Paul and God.

One need not be a Catholic to feel reverence for the man. It is a haunting and endearing and slightly disconcerting effect that Weigel achieves — a sense of that quality most distinct in John Paul II, an archaic purity of spirit. Who prays like that nowadays? What leader? Ordinarily, we think, Church and State should not be fraternizing in that fashion. How could such a shrewd and worldly public man (Prospero of the bickering and fractious Vatican, assassin’s target, nemesis of the Soviet superpower, colluder with Ronald Reagan in the moral subversion of the Evil Empire) spend so many hours of every day in fervent and private converse with God? An understandable instinct in the West mistrusts anyone given to undue praying; the thoughts of such a man are inaccessible and perhaps suspect. They may smack of the fanaticalAnyway, they discomfit the algorithms, which sense that an old rival has shown up to vie for souls in the medieval way that we thought we had left behind us.

*     *     *

It is rare that one has the chance to become friends with a saint. Weigel rises to the occasion. He explores the lessons that such an unusual man as John Paul (often misinterpreted by commentators addicted to hackneyed left/right categories) has to teach, including a lesson about prayer itself. Confession, in an exhibitionist Facebook sense, is not a sacrament. And such confession is surely not prayer, for prayer is the divestment of ego.

Prayer exposes the futility of ego; prayer is self-effacing, and, one would think, inherently truthful. It cannot be coincidence that the golden age of ego is also the golden age of lying. But what fool would bother to lie to God? To attempt to deceive God only compounds the sin, and that has been a mug’s game since the Garden. As I say, one does not have to be a Catholic, or a believer of any faith, to grasp and admire the truth of John Paul II’s life.

*     *     *

It’s a hard job, writing the life of a saint. To manage reverent affection, and to do it persuasively — that is tough. Weigel accomplishes it, mostly because he is good company and intelligent and knowledgeable. Once a seminary student, and a teacher of theology, he knows the secret passages of Church history as well as he knows the secret passages of the Vatican. He has a sense of humor and of sly satire, and if he spares the pope, he is merciless, in a subtle way, about the sinuous politicians of the Holy See.

The choice of details may be pleasantly wicked. He tells of a long interview at home with Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, John Paul II’s secretary of state, whose secret loyalties remained with John Paul’s predecessor Pope Paul VI, and with that pontiff’s ineffectual ostpolitik, which was designed to appease the Soviet Union:

There was . . . something touchingly bourgeois (or perhaps just male celibate) about the breakfront in the living room: it was full of stemware and other pieces of crystal glass given to the cardinal — and each piece still had the small manufacturer’s sticker attached.

Weigel tosses off another sketch:

As a Sostituto of the Secretariat of State, Archbishop Giovanni Battista Re was the switchboard through which all papal business flowed. His personality reminded some of an overstimulated child; he charged around Rome in a small Fiat he drove himself; his signature patter — “Bene, bene, bene, bene . . . ” — was a standing joke in the Curia.

The author loves good beer, and once, after a long, dry day of covering a papal visit to Warsaw, he discovered that all the bars were closed in deference to the pontiff. Weigel pleaded with a bartender: “But the pope wants me to have a beer!” It was undoubtedly true, but it didn’t do any good.

*     *     *

Weigel’s central point — and John Paul’s — was that culture drives history. Thus, in Karol Wojtyla’s (John Paul’s) time, Poland, profound in its culture of religious faith, suffered and survived Nazism and Communism — and overcame them. John Paul believed in the transforming power of moral witness.

If it is true that culture drives history, Weigel’s book is sufficient to depress the reader who wonders what history will be produced by the culture that we have now. The principle of garbage in, garbage out is being demonstrated in almost every aspect of American life.

What history will be “driven” by this “culture?” It’s probably not a bad idea to be sore afraid.

*     *     *

But it is comforting to be reminded of John Paul II, and encouraging to notice that Weigel likes to use the word “hope” in his book titles.

The essential point is simple and striking:

Holiness is real — a physical thing, one might say. An instinctive approach to the mystery of transubstantiation might begin there, thinking of the actual touch of sanctity — baraka in the desert meanings, in the desert clarities, the flow of grace and blessings: Through saints, from God. These things are not theoretical, or theological for that matter. They are actual and miraculous — both.

That’s how divinity touches history — when and if it chooses to do so.

— Lance Morrow is the Henry Grunwald Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center

Comments are closed.



RELATED PUBLICATIONS