Lessons in Hope: Learning from the Life of Pope John Paul II

A tapestry of Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square (Reuters photo: Tony Gentile)
If he were alive today, the saint would emphasize the link between moral truth and freedom.

Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II isn’t a book George Weigel ever expected to write. But Weigel is also “someone who never expected to become a papal biographer,” either. Author of Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning, he explains how this book came about: “I had devoted two large volumes, totaling some sixteen hundred pages, to chronicling the life of the emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century — and I thought there was no more to be said. My readers and my audiences taught me I was wrong about that.”

With Lessons in Hope, Weigel provides the third panel in a triptych, as he tells it, the third volume in a story he promised the saint himself he would tell. He talks about it with National Review.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is it about the providential view of history that John Paul II can teach us anew today?

George Weigel: John Paul II deeply believed that Christians know how the world’s story is going to turn out, because they have seen and touched the finale in the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Which is to say, Christians know that God’s creative and redemptive purposes are going to be vindicated. Knowing that that’s how the story turns out puts our own responsibilities in history in better perspective: Not that we become insouciant or imprudent, but we can be bold and courageous, knowing that the final result is not of our doing, but God’s. That’s how John Paul II lived his life, and that’s how and why he could bend history’s course in a more humane direction.

Lopez: What’s the chief lesson of hope we might need to let ourselves be challenged and guided by today?

Weigel: Let’s not let ourselves be paralyzed by what I’ve come to call the “tyranny of the possible”: the notion that some things just are, period, and there’s nothing we can do about them. That’s what people were saying in October 1978, when John Paul II was elected, about the permanence of the Berlin Wall, the inability of the Catholic Church to reach young people, and the incompatibility of Catholic doctrine with modern intellectual life. John Paul II refused to accept any of those “givens,” and because of that he was able, with hard shrewd work and great insight, to refute them.

Lopez: What is the chief lesson in the unexpectedness of your Life with St. John Paul II?

Weigel: Think vocationally, not in terms of career. As Lessons in Hope illustrates, I’m a career-counselor’s nightmare, in that I’ve usually ended up at the end of one decade doing something quite different than what I expected to be doing at the beginning of that decade. Trusting instincts about what-should-I-be-doing-next is a good rule to follow, I’ve found.

Lopez: Did John Paul II ever lose hope?

Weigel: He was a true spiritual Carmelite, so he certainly experienced what Carmelite spirituality describes as “dark nights” — periods when the presence of God seemed very distant. I describe one of these in the book, which occurred in the summer and early fall of 2003. But no, he never lost hope, because to lose hope is to despair, which was the “second sin” of Judas.

Lopez: What was it about his spiritual mentor Jan Tyranowski’s friendship in particular that helped him? What does it teach us about the vocation of the laity in the Church?

Weigel: Tyranowski introduced young Karol Wojtyła to the spirituality of the classic Carmelite reformers, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, and to the Marian theology of Saint Louis de Montfort. The Carmelite immersion helped form the future pope’s cross-centered view of history — God will be vindicated, even if the path to Easter lies through Calvary. The Montfortian introduction from Tyranowski, a mystically inclined tailor and layman, shaped John Paul’s conviction that all true Marian devotion is Christ-centered and Church-centered: Mary is the first disciple, not someone outside the Church in some antechamber between God and humanity.

Lopez: You mention some of the “martyr-confessors” you met in the early 1990s when you spent time in Prague in a seminary that had recently been recovered from the Communists. This seems like it could be another book unto itself. What about their witness left an impression on you?

Weigel: The story of Catholicism’s survival in what was then Czechoslovakia would make a very compelling book indeed, because the most faithful and resistant parts of the Church in Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia felt betrayed by the Ostpolitik of Pope Paul VI (which sought an accommodation with Communist regimes) and were re-energized by the election of John Paul II, who was not an accommodator. Revisiting that experience is very important today, when Vatican diplomacy seems to be back in accommodationist mode in Russia, Venezuela, China, and elsewhere.

As for the witness of the elderly priests I met, many of whom had been slave-prisoners in uranium mines two years before, what most impressed me about them was their humility. They didn’t think of themselves as heroes; they thought of themselves as men who had been given the grace and strength to do what they ought to have done, which was remain faithful to their vocations. That’s another lesson for today, in a Church in which some say that what is hard is merely an “ideal.” Well, it’s true that living the ideal, the truth, is hard; but we’re also called to strive, with the aid of God’s grace, to live up to it. Dumbing down the truth, the ideal, is demeaning to us both humanly and spiritually.

Lopez: I love the cameo Bill Buckley made in Copenhagen just before Centesimus Annus was published in 1991. Is there any wisdom you remember from the conversation, or from Bill in general, that could be helpful in focusing the minds of Americans today?

Weigel: As I recall, we talked about how to build a culture of law in post-Communist Europe during that drinks party on the fantail of Bill Simon’s boat. And a certain concern for the culture of law in our country today is certainly not misplaced.

Lopez: Of the messages of all his trips to the United States, was there one John Paul II might emphasize to us today?

Weigel: He would, I’m sure, re-emphasize the crucial link between moral truth and freedom lived nobly and well. If we’re all, pace Justice Anthony Kennedy, just twitching bundles of desires, the satisfaction of which is the chief function of the state, well, that moral tether has been broken, and our democracy has been reduced to a kind of sandbox for two-year-olds.

Lopez: Now that you know of many things that people want to know about him, is there anything you wish you had asked him?

Weigel: No, I don’t think so. But telling some of the stories that wouldn’t have “fit” in Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning is the whole purpose of Lessons in Hope, so I hope that helps to satisfy people’s desire to know this saint better.

Lopez: Will “John Paul the Great” ever be an official designation?

Weigel: Such things aren’t. There’s no procedure or formula by which Pope Leo I became “Pope Leo the Great” or Pope Gregory I became “Pope Gregory the Great.” It’s a matter of popular custom that becomes embedded in the culture and life of the Church.

Lopez: Why was it so hard for people in Poland to fully grasp John Paul II’s vision for politics? Have they?

Weigel: No, they certainly haven’t, and the reason why is a very complicated business. Part of the problem is that Poles are great at resistance and not so good at governance, as their history shows. Part of the problem today is that, post-1989, the Polish Left embraced a lot of the Euro-secularist lifestyle agenda as if it were the full meaning of democracy, while parts of the Polish Right fell back onto old nationalist-ethnic myths from the past.

I’ve long thought that the lack of a Burkean conservative, or liberal conservative, perspective in Polish public life has left a huge gap; and that gap also reflects the “unreception” of John Paul II’s social doctrine in Poland. John Paul’s sense that a vibrant public moral culture is essential to discipline and temper the energies set loose by free politics and free economics, and his confidence in the ability of civil society to energize real change, were very Burkean instincts — although I doubt that John Paul II read much of Edmund Burke.

Lopez: Why do you recommend that people read The Forty Days of Musa Dagh as Norman Podhoretz once recommended to you?

Weigel: It’s a great study of character under pressure.

Lopez: Whatever does writing Witness to Hope have to do with a scene from Lonesome Dove?

Weigel: Well, as the dying Gus McRae says to Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove, “It’s been quite a party,” and that’s how I felt about the adventure of writing Witness to Hope — which, as Lessons in Hope should make clear, was quite a ride in terms of the personalities I met and the problems I had to solve to get the job done properly.


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