The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, by George Weigel (Doubleday, 608 pp., $32.95)
In this book, George Weigel maintains the very high standard he has long achieved of presenting controversial Roman Catholic subjects with the sympathy and insight of a committed adherent and the balance and rigor of an eminent scholar and historian. There will doubtless be herniating masses of further documentation published on every phase of the subject’s 27-year papacy. And there will be more elaborate discussions of the vast subjects John Paul II grappled with as he tried to reconcile Catholic Christian faith with the destabilizing influences of the Enlightenment, and the relativism and the temptations of gratification, that have assaulted modern Catholicism. But there is no reason to believe that any future account will give a more balanced view of what the future pope said in 1976 was “a lively battle for the dignity of man.”
Before settling down to his leisurely account of the latter half of John Paul II’s pontificate, Weigel executes a quick march through the pope’s early years (already covered in his 1999 volume Witness to Hope). Many of John Paul II’s closest friends were murdered by the Nazis, for hiding Jews and other hunted innocents, and the tradition of suffering and martyrdom was a vivid and intimate experience for him. This was one of the reasons that he beatified 1,338 Servants of God, 1,032 of them martyrs, and canonized 482 new saints, of whom 402 were martyrs; adding significantly to the 302 saints that had been canonized since the process was inaugurated in its present, relatively routine form in 1588. His view of the world and of man’s fate was stern, but it was not grim: He believed that life was “cruciform,” that suffering was the inescapable lot of all, but that life was no less capable of providing happiness, accomplishment, and nobility for that. There was much sadness in the world, but none of it needed be purposeless, and all fates were appealable through spirituality. As pope, John Paul II prayed intensely, every day, for dozens of supplicants seeking relief from illness, bereavement, or other ailments of the world. He took on these causes as his own, and there were many documented, happy outcomes. He is even reliably credited with two exorcisms. It is little wonder that he is widely regarded, even by very sober people, as a miraculous figure.
He was pope for longer than anyone except St. Peter (34 or 37 years) and Pius IX (32 years). His output of 14 encyclicals, 14 apostolic exhortations, and many other messages, speeches, and homilies fills twelve feet of shelf space. His 1,164 general audiences were attended by nearly 18 million people (an impressive average of over 15,000 every Wednesday for decades, indoors and out), and he was personally seen, in his endless tours in the world (including to Azerbaijan, which had only 120 Roman Catholics), by the astonishing and completely unprecedented total of approximately 230 million people. His funeral was attended by 74 heads of state and government, more than the funerals of John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Charles de Gaulle combined, along with almost a million members of the public.
His remarkable human qualities have never been seriously disputed. The balance sheet of his pontificate is complicated, and is presented in this book with scrupulous fairness. The Church itself generally flourished. There were twice as many Roman Catholics in the world when the pope died as when he was elected, and the acute crises of recruitment abated appreciably, though not altogether. The talk of schism and erosion in the agnostic secular media, which for over a century have regarded the Roman Church as a primitive and saturnine bumblebee defying all laws of nature and surely destined to fall down, was moderated, and they came, generally, to address the subject in less disdainful and funereal terms.