Peggy Noonan, that prolific and brilliant former Ronald Reagan speechwriter, has a new book out, this one on one of the good men we lost this year–a “great.” Her John Paul the Great : Remembering a Spiritual Father is a personal look at the late pontiff.
Noonan recently e-mailed with NRO editor Kathryn Lopez about John Paul the Great. Here’s the exchange.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: You were right, I was wrong. There, I said it! Did you have to memorialize my bad prediction that you were being too optimistic on the morning of PJPII’s funeral–that Cardinal Ratzinger had made himself pope during his eulogy of his friend? I’m delighted to have been wrong of course.
Peggy Noonan: Remember us e-mailing that morning? At what, 5 A.M.? We were each up so early and still arguably over-caffeinated. I was so taken aback when it struck me: I think Cardinal Ratzinger is the next pope and if it happens it will be because JPII chose him to lead the funeral, preside over the mass, and do the homily. I remember e-mailing you. You were the one I knew would be awake and watching.
Lopez: Definitely over-caffeinated.
Peggy, you talk about the shame of the American scandals in the seminaries and rectories. And yet you still call JPII “great.” How does that gel?
Noonan: It gels because life is big, mixed, complicated. JPII helped change the map of the world by standing firm for Christianity, by embodying the Christian spirit within the Warsaw Pact countries. He ventured into the world as the pope as a paradox: He was the Great Opposer of the ugly isms (fascism, communism, materialism) and the Great Asserter of God, Faith, Religion. He was a giant. Did bad things happen on his watch? Did he respond to some of them imperfectly–humanly–mistakenly? Yes. And one was The Great Shame–the sexual-abuse scandals of the American Catholic Church.
Lopez: You refer to the priesthood as “a masculine and manly institution.” Why the seeming redundancy?
Noonan: Hmmmmmm. I think because I’m a writer. By which I mean I want to be clear.
Lopez: What’s the deal with Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and the subject of your book and seamstresses?
Noonan: It’s a small fact of history I discovered through talking to Nancy Reagan about Ronnie, talking to Mrs. Thatcher about her childhood, and reading about John Paul. It is that all of their mothers took in seamstress work at home when they were children, to supplement their families’ incomes. I realized: These three great collaborators in the bringing together of Europe all grew up watching their mothers take different pieces of cloth and sewing them together into a whole–a new thing that coheres and is something different. I thought: That may be a coincidence, but it may be more. Childhood is the forge in which we’re formed. I think in it we learn things that are unforgettable that we don’t even know we’re learning, or not forgetting.
Lopez: Do you know much about JPII’s behind-the-scenes interaction with President Reagan?
Noonan: I know they kept each other informed, signaled to each other. They were unalike but had similarities. JPII was an intellectual in the 20th century European tradition–he knew of what philosophers were saying, took their thought seriously, pondered it, and came up with counter-arguments and observations and assertions. Reagan was not up at night pondering Kirkegaard. He was an American boy who loved Jesus, wanted to rise, ultimately studied the Federalist Papers, and the work of the Founders. He was interested in political philosophy, not theology. So: One was Warsaw misty, the other was Midwest bright. But they had much in common. They both meant it. They were both actors as young men, they both believed in things that were higher than themselves, they both rose from obscurity and modest origins, and they were both tough guys who seemed, and were, sweet. And they both knew they didn’t rise for no reason. They got each other. Judge Clark tried for years to convert Reagan to Catholicism, did you know that? And Reagan always listened because Reagan liked to talk about God. He liked to consider him. Reagan’s father was Catholic. But his mother, the steadier hand in the house, was Protestant and evangelical, and he was like his mother, and loyal to what she’d been. Reagan was not mystical in a sacramental sense, but he had some woo-woo in him–a sense that a higher power was at work and operative and intervening in his life and history. John Paul thought the hand of the Blessed Mother deflected the bullet that was to kill him away from arteries and nerve clusters. Reagan felt God and his angels saved his life when he was shot. What extraordinary men.
Lopez: Pope John Paul II forgave the man who tried to kill him and yet the forgiveness would seem to have stopped with him. Should the Vatican have allowed Ahmed Ali Agca to attend Pope John Paul II’s funeral?
Noonan: I don’t know. Agca is an odd one to say the least. He has never told, or it is believed he never told, the truth about who directed him to attempt to kill the pope, who funded it. And yet I personally would have liked to have seen him at John Paul’s funeral, and I bet John Paul would have too. You know they had a wonderful conversation after Agca tried to kill him. John Paul visited him in his prison cell in Rome. Agca told the pope he didn’t understand why he hadn’t succeeded in killing him–he shot steady and at almost point-blank range. He had heard John Paul believed the path of the bullets was deflected by the hand of Mary. The pope said yes, that’s true. Agca asked if Mary would now curse him and kill him in his cell. John Paul explained who Mary was and told Agca she loved him. Agca was amazed to hear this. I feel that their conversation was one of the most radiant and yet largely unknown moments of the 20th century.
Lopez: What is the “Splendor of Truth”?
Noonan: I believe John Paul laid this out in his first encyclical. It is living with the knowledge that Jesus Christ is the center of all history and the center of life. Not “living with” it but knowing it and being made bright with joy at it, bright with knowledge.
Lopez: What did Pope John Paul II teach us about freedom?
Noonan: That it’s a damn good thing, missy. He hated dictatorships–they were almost all he’d known in the political arrangements surrounding him in his youth and adulthood. And yet he knew that political freedom is a precursor to, a helper of, spiritual freedom. Which is the most important freedom, the one that has to do with your inner existence. Not everything is politics. Much isn’t politics. He reminded us that freedom isn’t mindless liberty or endless choice. It is the thing you use to search for truth. It is truth.
Lopez: Did he have a dark night of the soul?
Noonan: I would hope so. All the most interesting people do. I think he had one when he was 20, when his father had just died and his family was all gone and now he was alone. He cried aloud. Or was he alone? He had to decide. He had to turn or not turn to God. He suffered his way to faith. He wept his way.
Lopez: Your book is pretty personal as far as biographies of a pope go.
Noonan: Yes. An old priest once told me that Christians see their lives as a train on a track–all the good effort in the front speeding on, and all the old sins rattling around in the back cars being pulled behind. He said, “We are not a train on a line with an engine and a caboose! We are a train that goes along with all the cars going forward together, at the same speed. The track is wide, it is many tracks. You come forward with all your effort and all your sins together, they’re you, that’s how we all really travel.” I thought about this for a long time. I always write with young adults in mind. I am a mother. I have spent 18 years raising a son. It has been the great thing of my life. One of the most helpful things I think there is in trying to give instruction and guidance is not so much saying, “This is what is right,” as saying, “This is how I got it wrong, let me tell you how I found out what is good.” So I wind up telling stories.
Lopez: Our friend Kate O’Beirne speaks to this in your book: How was JPII important for women? The patriarchy in Rome isn’t often thought of as feminist, and yet…
Noonan: And yet it’s not. We have to help them! So many of them don’t know what women… are, really. They have limited categories–”a woman is my mother who put me through seminary and taught me my faith.” That’s nice, nothing wrong with that, but women are also leaders outside the family. They are half of the church. Women have a lot to add that does not necessarily involve typing the bishop’s correspondence or getting the cardinal coffee. Women in the church have wisdom and experience the patriarchy hasn’t fully twigged on to. I believe the older cardinals and bishops and priests by and large have a somewhat ego-tethered understanding of women. I think they need some Teresa of Avila’s to… how to put it… kick their ass. I believe women religious –women who wear a real habit and obey real vows–must rise. The image of Pope John Paul presiding over Mother Teresa’s beatification was an important one for the Church. She was an example of his “new feminism.”
Lopez: In that spirit, explain what you mean by the statement “Nothing helps the world more than good nuns.”
Noonan: A good nun is a good mother. And they should be called “Mother,” just as priests are called “Father.” Mother Agnes of the Sisters of Life does more for the church than anyone I know of. She saves lives; she ministers to women; she helps and lifts. She prays. And she is modest. Modest is a thing I’d like to see more of in the Church.
Lopez:. Will we really be calling him “John Paul the Great” in 20, 50, etc. years?
Noonan: Yes. By then it will be official. He will have been recognized as a saint by the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church. And as a saint he will have a nickname. “The Little Flower,” etc. John Paul will be “The Great.” Because the day he died four million pilgrims engulfed Rome and shouted to that old Vatican, “Magnus, Magnus!” “The Great, the Great!” He was from that day in my view a saint by acclamation. And he got his nickname.