EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in the October 11, 1999, issue of National Review.
Those who knew it was coming, knew it would be something good. George Weigel, the Catholic theologian and journalist, worked on his book for only three years–an astonishingly short time for a work so ambitious and important. His subject, the Pope, had asked him to write his semi-authorized biography. Weigel was thus given the opportunity of a lifetime; he has brought it off magnificently.
The book, Witness to Hope, carries a subtitle with an arresting little word in it: The Biography of Pope John Paul II. Note that wee “the.” It is a brazen article–no “A Life” business for Weigel–but it is justified. The book is a thousand pages long, physically difficult to handle. The author, according to his publicist, was granted “unprecedented access to the Pope and the people who have known and worked with him.” John Paul chose wisely in anointing Weigel, an American. The biography is thoroughly admiring–Weigel sees almost everything from the Pope’s point of view, sometimes even seeming to inhabit him–but, then, there is a lot to admire.
When a book of this size comes along, one of two words is usually applied to it: “magisterial” or “ponderous.” Witness to Hope is definitely magisterial, but it cannot escape stretches of ponderousness. As Weigel lays fact upon fact, episode upon episode, observation upon observation, the question arises, Is this a biography of record or a biography to be read? It is both, really. The book is nicely readable–despite some overwrought prose of the “long, dark night of the Polish soul” variety–but it at times seems intent on welcoming everything in, reluctant to omit a jot or tittle.
The Pope, Karol Wojtyla, was born in the town of Wadowice, Poland, in 1920. His mother, Emilia, died when he was only nine. His father, also called Karol, was a military officer, with an intellectual and spiritual bent. The elder Karol sounds nothing short of ideal. John Paul would write that he and his father “never spoke about a vocation to the priesthood, but his example was in a way my first seminary.” Weigel lays great stress on the Wojtylas’ openness to Jews–almost to a defensive extent.
Young Karol, nicknamed “Lolek,” was a person of remarkable accomplishment. He was mad for the theater, acting in plays and writing them, and soaked up languages, literature, and philosophy. He seems to have been every teacher’s favorite student, every neighbor’s favorite lad, every classmate’s favorite friend. In 1938, he entered Jagiellonian University in Krakow, one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in Europe–where Copernicus studied, Weigel reminds us. A year later, however, the lights went out: The Stukas roared over Poland, and the Occupation–Wojtyla’s most severe and most influential teacher–began.
Weigel’s book is not only a major piece of scholarship, but a cracking good story–never more so than when it deals with the war years. Wojtyla had to take his studies underground, and he was also forced to break limestone in a nearby quarry. Weigel, as usual, provides the apt detail: Wojtyla and his comrades smeared petroleum jelly on their faces “to keep their skin from freezing.” Polish life from 1939 to 1945, writes Weigel, “had a bizarre, even a surreal quality. It was not a question of knowing whether you would be alive next year”; it was a question of “knowing whether you would be alive tomorrow.” When word arrived that France, too, had succumbed to the Nazi brute, suicides took place all over Poland. “There would be no help. There would be no spring. . . . Poland was a nation under ice.”
After a period of “considerable interior wrestling,” Wojtyla made the decision to become a priest. He was convinced of the power, says Weigel, both of “words” and of “the Word.” His seminarial studies, too, had to take place underground. When the war finally came to an end, there was little relief: Soviet domination, and Communist rule, settled in. For Wojtyla, the deal at Yalta “became something more than the cruel truth that Poland, presumably one of World War II’s victors, was in fact a double loser”; it represented “the triumph of a false and inhuman power realism over the moral pledges that the Western allies had made to Poland.” The events of his life “chiseled” Wojtyla “into an early maturity.” He was not, however, hard, cold; he was–everybody could see it–a man “who loved easily.”
Wojtyla seems to have been an exemplary parish priest. It was his duty, he once remarked, “to live with people everywhere they are, to be with them in everything but sin.” The vacations he took with his earliest followers–hiking, kayaking–were “pastoral opportunities.” He has, writes Weigel, “a penetrating insight into those he meets, such that one wants to entrust him with one’s decisions”; but “his signature phrase as a confessor and spiritual counselor has always been, ‘You must decide.’” Reading some of the letters that Wojtyla has sent to members of his flock–sage, tender, brimming with love–we can see that, if one needs a priest, or a pope, one could do worse, much worse, than Wojtyla.
In August 1978, on the death of Pope Paul VI, the College of Cardinals elected a sweet and humble man who called himself John Paul. His was to be a very brief papacy; he died in September. When the College then selected Wojtyla–who, since his ordination as a priest, had been named bishop, archbishop, and cardinal–it chose the first non-Italian pope in almost 500 years and the first Slavic one ever. When the news reached Poland that its son had been elected, “a huge, spontaneous celebration erupted.” Church bells rang, one after another, as “people poured into the streets with lighted candles and flowers, waving Polish flags, crying, embracing.” No one could read these passages without experiencing shivers down the spine. The KGB, for its part, experienced shivers of a different sort–it “ordered up a special study on how Wojtyla had been elected and what his papacy portended.”
John Paul II was a threat to Moscow because, as Weigel says, “he was a witness rather than a politician.” He grasped that “the Gospel had public implications, and he never hesitated to draw them out, no matter how discomforting . . . for the wielders of worldly power.”
Weigel describes the Pope’s first visit to Poland, in June 1979, in thrilling detail. John Paul addressed a million of his compatriots in the flesh, and “tens of millions more on radio and television.” As the Pope conducted a Mass in Warsaw, Edward Gierek, the country’s Communist premier, “watched nervously from a window in a hotel adjacent to the square.” According to Weigel, Soviet boss Leonid Brezhnev had warned Gierek not to allow the Pope’s visit, but Gierek felt he had no choice. So did “Poland’s ’second baptism,’ which would change the history of the 20th century,” begin.
About this matter of history: Weigel assigns John Paul a large role–even the leading one–in the dissolution of the Soviet Empire and the conclusion of the Cold War. He titles his section on the Pope’s first trip to Poland “Nine Days that Changed the World.” Now, the game of “Who won the Cold War?” rarely produces a satisfactory outcome. Some like to emphasize Ronald Reagan, others Mikhail Gorbachev, others a number of factors unrelated to individuals. Weigel records that Bishop Jean-Marie Lustiger, listening to a papal speech, “thought to himself, ‘Communism is finished.’” Maybe so; but the Cold War was still a matter of guns and tanks and missiles, and the willingness of the men in the Kremlin to use them. Weigel does make short work of the notion–peddled most conspicuously by a book co-authored by Carl Bernstein–that the Vatican and the Reagan administration engaged in a “conspiracy” against the Soviet Union, or even cooperated with each other.
Over and over, Weigel asserts that the Pope “inspired” or “triggered” a “revolution of conscience.” We tend to nod at this assertion, and mouth it ourselves, but what does it mean, exactly? Surely the peoples of the Soviet bloc had always despised the system to which they were subject, and fought it as best they could; but in Berlin, Budapest, Prague, and other places, they were crushed by overwhelming material force.
Furthermore, when it comes to the power of the papacy, we face a conundrum. The controversy over Pope Pius XII, who presided over the Vatican during World War II and the Holocaust, is ever with us. On the one hand, John Paul II is said to have shaken up the world, brought down governments, repelled evil, and so on. On the other hand, Pius XII . . . well, he was merely pope. What could he do to affect the course of events? So, which is it? Does the pope have history-altering power or does he not? Perhaps, as elsewhere, it depends on the man who holds the office. It is enough that John Paul roused the spirits of millions of abused people, lessened their fear, and fueled them with hope.
John Paul, observes Weigel, considers Gorbachev a “providential man.” Weigel, however, disagrees. He contends that the last Soviet leader “had no other choice” than to relinquish Poland and the other satellites. “Given his own domestic problems, he was in no position to reassert the Brezhnev Doctrine.” Really? Weigel notes that this “does not seem to have been the view of John Paul or his Polish colleagues in the Vatican.” Although the Pope “had gotten completely beyond a traditional Polish view of the Great Power to the east culturally and spiritually,” he “had not fully done so politically.” This is one of the few instances in which Weigel rather condescends to his man. It could be that the Pope knew more about this situation–had a keener grasp of the significance of Gorbachev–than does his Boswell.
Weigel has managed to learn and understand a staggering amount. His book is dotted with set pieces–essays, lessons–on an array of subjects. We read mini-biographies of dozens of figures. We are treated to European history, Church history, and diplomatic history. We receive sound explanations of, for example, “liberation theology,” the Edith Stein controversy, the Kurt Waldheim affair, and the renegade and excommunicated Archbishop Lefebvre. Weigel is, among other things, a lucid explicator of his Church and its doctrines and policies. Sometimes he writes like a man afire, charged by the momentousness of his subject and task.
It is Weigel’s guess that John Paul has stamped the papacy for years to come, returning it to “its evangelical roots.” No longer do people “think of the pope as the chief executive officer of the Roman Catholic Church.” Weigel also believes that the present pope may someday be known, like a Gregory and a Leo before him, as John Paul “the Great.” One thing is certain, made unmistakable by Witness to Hope: Rarely has there been so perfect a marriage of man to job as Karol Wojtyla to the papacy. He was appointed at just the right time, and he has met his obligations superbly. The same may be said for his biographer.