All lives run along a set of rails: family background, native abilities, education, interests and habits. Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, was a man whose life ran along a particularly broad-gauged rail bed. He was the most visible human being in history, having been seen live by more people than any man who ever lived; yet he had a deeply ingrained sense of privacy and an old-fashioned, even courtly, sense of manners. He inspired tens of millions of people by the intensity of his faith; yet he was a mystic who found it impossible to describe some of his own most profound religious experiences. He was arguably the most well-informed man of his time; yet he rarely read newspapers. He had a profound impact on the late 20th century; yet he was completely convinced that culture, not politics or economics, was the engine that drove history. He had a deep appreciation of untutored popular piety; yet he was a world-class intellectual insatiably curious about the latest trends in philosophy and literature.
The rhythm of his life was prayer. The best hour of his day was the hour of private devotion and meditation in his chapel before his morning mass. There visitors could hear him groaning in prayer, in a conversation with God that was, quite literally, beyond words. In addition to the mass and the Divine Office (the prescribed daily prayers that all priests and many Roman Catholic laypeople say), he could be heard in prayer walking back and forth to meetings, taking a stroll in the Vatican gardens or relaxing after lunch in the garden atop the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican where he lived.
Breaking centuries of tradition, he insisted on being the master of his own table, inviting guests for lunch and dinner virtually every day of his pontificate. In more than two dozen such encounters with him over 14 years, I discovered Wojtyla to be a remarkably unaffected and natural man, with a capacity to put even the most reticent visitors, men and women, laity and clergy, at ease. He seemed to care little about food, but he had a serious sweet tooth; in his later years he drank herbal tea while his guests were served good local wines with plainly cooked pasta, roast chicken or thinly sliced veal, and a large array of vegetables. Conversation, not carbohydrates, was the food he most craved.
His table talk was often conducted in three or four languages simultaneously. He was the most intense listener I have ever met, a man far more interested in what you had to say than in telling you what he thought—or, still less, what to think. In the space of a half hour he could guide a conversation from world politics to the goings-on in a guest’s parish church, from inquiries about intellectuals whose careers he followed to questions about a visitor’s children. His memory for names was phenomenal, and he could startle you by recounting entire conversations you had had with him years before.
His sense of humor was robust and dry. Having no use for sycophants, he liked to kid and he liked to be kidded. His sense of humor about his own life and circumstances tended toward the ironic. Once, after his less-than-successful 1994 hip-replacement surgery, I asked him how he felt. “Neck down, not so good” was the wry reply. After dinner one night at the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, his secretary brought a raft of documents that required his signature; some of them, to Emperor this or President that, were inscribed on parchment in a beautiful Latin calligraphy. Halfway through the pile he looked across the table at me, obviously tired after a long day, and with raised eyebrow said, “Povero papa“—”The poor pope!” He broke up laughing, and so did the other four guests.
In an age in which personalities are often assembled from bits and pieces of conviction (politics here, religion there; morals from here, artistic interests from there) Wojtyla could be startling. He was the most integrated personality I have ever met, and everything about him revolved around the conviction that Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life. Whether he was meeting Mikhail Gorbachev or the Union of Italian Hairdressers, the children of friends or the princes of his own church, every encounter took place within the horizon of John Paul II’s absolutely unshakable conviction that the men and women he met were players in a great cosmic drama that had God as its author and director.
By the conventions of his time, the intensity of his Christian conviction should have made him a sectarian, even a dangerous man. To his mind, however, it was precisely his Christian faith and his discipleship that required him to be in dialogue with everyone. Everyone was of inestimable value, and everything was of interest, because God had entered history in Jesus of Nazareth, supercharging the world and humanity with a grandeur beyond imagining.
“In the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences,” he said in 1982, on the first anniversary of the assassination attempt that came within millimeters of ending his life in a pool of blood on the floor of the Popemobile. For Wojtyla, that was the truth of the world. Acting on that truth, he became both an immensely attractive human being and one of the great shapers of contemporary history.
He is now where he always wanted to be.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.