George Weigel, essayist and journalist, papal biographer and sports fan (the longest piece he ever wrote was on baseball), has more than a few insights to share. As Catholics begin the penitential season of Lent, during a time of uncertainty and violence in Ukraine, and as we approach Pope Francis’s first-year anniversary, Weigel talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about some of these things and about his book Roman Pilgrimage.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You’ve been doing a lot of writing about Ukraine. Why is this so important to you?
GEORGE WEIGEL: It’s important to me personally, because I have many former students and a lot of close friends who have been deeply involved in the Maidan movement, and their moral seriousness and bravery demand and deserve what solidarity I can offer.
It’s important to me as a student of world politics because an independent, economically vibrant, pluralistic Ukraine could be a model for Russia and Belarus, as freedom-loving people there struggle to get beyond Communism. Putin knows this, I should add, which is why he has been lying so blatantly about what’s afoot in Ukraine — he doesn’t want a Maidan on Red Square.
It’s important to me as a student of history, because I have come to the conclusion that until Russia divests itself of its messianic/imperial ambitions, it will not be the nation its rich spiritual and cultural heritage should cause it to be.
Finally, it’s important to me, because I am very tired of American fecklessness in world politics, which is a prescription for international chaos. But at the bottom of the bottom line, when I accepted an honorary degree from the Ukrainian Catholic University last July and challenged its students and faculty to live out the heritage of the 20th-century Ukrainian martyrs, I assumed an obligation to stand with them when they decided to be and do precisely what I called them to be and do. That’s an obligation I’ve tried to fulfill in my writing and work on Ukraine since last November.
LOPEZ: Why should Americans care?
WEIGEL: Because we don’t want Putin to reverse the Verdict of 1989 and reignite the Cold War. Because of our own self-respect. Because we can read what happened in the late 1930s and ought to have learned a few things from that. It would be desperately self-demeaning to let Putin snatch victory from the jaws of a richly merited defeat because we want to take our marbles and go home, tired of the game.
LOPEZ: What should the president be doing?
WEIGEL: Samantha Power’s speech at the United Nations Security Council Tuesday was a step in the right direction, calling lies for what they are and laying out the truth of the situation. Beyond that, we have a lot of tools to make life uncomfortable for Putin and his friends: international downsizing of Russia by canceling the G8 meeting in Sochi, or, better, holding it in Tallinn, Estonia — another port city Putin would like to reabsorb — without inviting him; serious financial and visa restrictions; and observers throughout Ukraine, not only from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but also from the U.S., to tell the truth amidst the propaganda barrage from Moscow. I would also think seriously about showing the flag in the Black Sea, moving American air assets into Poland and Lithuania, and reversing the idiotic decision to pull the plug on missile-defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic.
LOPEZ: Is Roman Pilgrimage meant to be a Lenten meditation book?
WEIGEL: It’s certainly meant to help people do Lent in Rome at home, but I hope it’s useful throughout the year, both as an art and architecture guide — Elizabeth Lev is the best, period, and Stephen Weigel’s photographs, especially in the e-book, “put” you in Rome in an unparalleled way — and as a source of reflection on the basic spiritual rhythms of Christian life.
LOPEZ: If you could spend all of Lent meditating on one Roman station church, which would it be? Is there one whose richness best captures the season?
WEIGEL: Tough call. Candidates would be St. Sabina on the Aventine (the first in the batting order, on Ash Wednesday), because of its first-ever artistic portrayal of the crucifixion and its perfection as an embodiment of Christian architecture; Sts. Cosmas and Damian near the Colosseum, with its spectacular apse mosaic (which I once stupidly thought was 20th-century art deco, only to be told that it was a 6th-century preview of that form!); and St. Stephen on the Caelian Hill (because it’s a powerful meditation on the cost of faith and religious freedom in an utterly distinctive architectural environment). But the ne plus ultra would be St. Peter’s on the day when the stational pilgrimage there coincides with the Feast of the Chair of Peter (February 22), the only day on which the Bernini “Altar of the Throne” in the apse is lit by over a hundred six-foot tall tapers. If you want Christian-church-as-preview-of-heaven, it doesn’t get better than that — unless you go any day to the St. Zeno chapel in St. Praxedes — gold mosaics that make for one of the most beautiful rooms on planet Earth.
LOPEZ: To the reader on the fence about what book to start off Lent with, what page should he turn to in order to let Roman Pilgrimage make its most compelling sale?
WEIGEL: I’d start with the introductory essays on the station-church pilgrimage and the meaning of Lent. Everything follows from there.
LOPEZ: This is the first full Lent with Pope Francis. How is it different? How are things different?
WEIGEL: He’s going back up the Aventine to take ashes on Ash Wednesday, so he’s clearly aligning himself with the practice of his immediate predecessors in “owning” this ancient tradition, largely revived by Americans. And I expect the season will be for him an occasion to think through even more deeply the reform of the Church and the Roman Curia to which he’s committed himself.
LOPEZ: The one-year anniversary of his election is coming up. What’s the most important message to take from this last year?
WEIGEL: That we are a Church in “permanent mission,” as he put it in Evangelii Gaudium, and that every Catholic is baptized into a missionary vocation. That’s what’s closest to his heart — that and the healing of a deeply wounded and broken culture.
LOPEZ: You spent some time with Pope Francis this weekend. How is he doing? What did he say? Was there anything that might surprise us? Anything that might help set up Lent right?
WEIGEL: We spent an hour together in a very friendly, but also very intense conversation about many things, including the roots of the woundedness of Western culture. It was a personal conversation, not an interview, so I’m not at liberty to get into details, but I came away from that hour with the same sense I took away from our first meeting in Buenos Aires in May 2012: This is a man of God, a radically converted Christian disciple, who, because of that, is a risk-taker determined to do what he can to address the unhappiness caused by the various idolatries that surround us. He wants our support in prayer, and he will certainly have mine. I commend that thought to others as they begin the discipline of Lent.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.