Pope John Paul II died Saturday night, Rome time, at age 84. Official papal biographer George Weigel (author of Witness to Hope) spoke to NRO’s editor Kathryn Lopez about the man and his papacy and his place in history.
National Review Online: What’s Pope John Paul’s greatest legacy?
George Weigel: He was the great Christian witness of the last quarter of the 20th century, the man who took the Christian proposal to more of the world than anyone else. His pivotal role in the collapse of European Communism will be remembered by many; I hope they remember that he helped bring down the Wall as a pastor and teacher, not as a politician.
NRO: We know he’s played a big role in the history of the world, how about more parochially–in Catholic history?
Weigel: This was the most intellectually consequential pontificate since the Council of Trent. The Church will be digesting the teaching of John Paul II for at least a century, and possibly longer. In addition to that, and at a more personal level, John Paul inspired literally tens of millions of Catholics to live lives of radical Christian conviction. That will extend his influence far into the future.
NRO: Had Karol Wojtyla never become pope, would he have played a significant role in history regardless?
Weigel: In some respects. He would certainly have been remembered in Poland as a major figure in that country’s 20th- century history. And eventually, aspects of his thought–like his revolutionary “theology of the body”–would have gotten out to the West and would have begun to have an influence.
NRO: If there was one of his writings you’d think he’d recommend we all read (or reread; Catholics and non-Catholics alike), what do you think it would be and why?
Weigel: I think Crossing the Threshold of Hope” is a remarkable window into John Paul II’s mind and heart; it bears reading and rereading, by everyone.
NRO: What has Pope John Paul II taught us about suffering and death, through his example?
Weigel: He reminded Christians by his example that the Christian way is always the Way of the Cross. He reminded everyone that there is no such thing as a disposable human being.
NRO: Do you have a favorite PJPII story you’ll be remembering him by?
Weigel: I suppose I’ll remember for a long time the night I gave him Witness to Hope. At the end of dinner, as he was saying good-bye, he gave me a huge embrace and held me, without saying a word, for what seemed like a couple of minutes. I’ll also remember him greeting 150 of my students from the summer program in Cracow at which I teach alongside Father Richard Neuhaus and Michael Novak. We’d expected a five-minute minute meeting; the Pope insisted on meeting every student individually, for almost an hour. It was typical of the man.
–George Weigel, senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, is the author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II and, most recently, Letters to a Young Catholic.