Magazine | October 16, 2017, Issue

Providence and a Pope

(Luciano Mellace/Reuters)
Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II, by George Weigel (Basic, 368 pp., $32)

When Sister Mary Euphemia, the principal at Cathedral School on Mulberry Street in Baltimore, assigned George Weigel’s third-grade class to pray for the conversion of “W-L-A-D-Y-S-L-A-W G-O-M-U-L-K-A” during Lent, Divine Providence knew what nobody in the first Catholic diocese in the United States could have at the time.

“Had anyone told me that, some thirty years later, I would write books in which [Communist Party boss] Wladyslaw Gomulka’s complex role in post-war Polish history figured prominently, I would have thought the prognosticator mad,” Weigel writes in this new book. “Yet there it is.”

When Pope Benedict visited the United States in 2008, the archdiocese of Washington took out ads on the Metro, proclaiming: “One who has hope lives differently.” The words came from that pontiff’s encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi. On account of his experience with John Paul II — writing his authoritative biography and becoming his friend — Weigel thinks differently, too, drawn into a trust in God’s providence. This might in fact be the chief component of the relationship that made the books possible: a shared insistence that God knows what he’s doing, a confidence of the same kind that led Poles to break out into “We want God” for twelve minutes during what Weigel calls “the Nine Days that changed the history of the 20th century,” when John Paul returned home for the first time as pope in 1979.

“In salvation history — that inner core of world history in which God’s purposes are worked out through the action of divine grace on individual lives — there are neither happenstances nor coincidences,” Weigel writes. “Rather, what appears to be sheer happenstance or coincidence is an aspect of Providence we don’t yet grasp.”

John Paul II believed this about the fact that he was never killed during the Nazi occupation of Poland, when friends of his — including other seminarians and priests — were. Weigel recounts that John Paul, in a memoir about his vocation,

remembered a fellow underground seminarian, Jerzy Zachuta, with whom he used to serve Mass for Archbishop Adam Stefan Sapieha. . . . One day Zachuta didn’t show up. [Karol] Wojtyla [the future John Paul II] went to his friend’s home after the early morning Mass and discovered what had happened: The Gestapo had come the night before and arrested Jerzy Zachuta, who was later shot. As John Paul wrote more than a half century later, “Sometimes I would ask myself: So many young people of my own age are losing their lives, why not me? Today I know it was not mere chance.”

He believed this, too, about the day he was shot in St. Peter’s Square. As Weigel writes: “Some might have thought it a mere coincidence that a professional assassin, shooting at point-blank range on May 13, 1981, the day the Church’s liturgy commemorated Our Lady of Fatima, failed to kill his target. But John Paul had come to a different understanding of his life and of history. As he put it more than once, ‘One hand fired, and another guided, the bullet.’” He believed, Weigel writes, that “Providence acting through Our Lady, not ballistics, guided the bullet that missed his abdominal aorta by a few millimeters. He was spared, and for a reason. There was a mission to complete, and the Lord of history would see that he was given the opportunity to complete it.”

That mission involved leading “a culture-forming Church that shaped public life through an educated and engaged laity: a Church that was not identified with any political party but that taught a vision of the free and virtuous society that animated all of society.”

And Providence does not miss a beat. Which is why Weigel tells about his own third-grade preparation: “Please don’t tell me those weeks of Lenten prayer in 1960 for Comrade Gomulka’s conversion — seemingly unanswered — didn’t have something to do with planting in me a seed that would finally flower in a passion for Polish history and literature — and a determination to tell the story of a then-40-year-old auxiliary bishop of Krakow whom Gomulka and his associates foolishly thought a mystically inclined intellectual they could manipulate.”

God would prepare Weigel in other ways, too. A one-time seminary student, he was unenthusiastic about philosophy, an essential field when it comes to understanding Wojtyla, but persevered. This proved crucial to the endeavor that became “the pivot” of his life. And, although he was a lifelong devourer of history, it was only when Weigel finally got to know Poland on the ground that he learned more fully the essence of Communism and its failure, and this understanding became thoroughly entwined with his recounting of the life of John Paul II.

He explains how the relationship between them developed:

What struck him, I decided, was that we had come by different routes to a common understanding of the inner dynamic of the overthrow of European Communism. He had a well-developed theory of history: He thought that culture was the principal driver of history over the long haul, not politics and not economics. It was a deeply Slavic view of How Things Worked. . . . For my part, research in Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1991 had both confirmed and filled out my sense that much more was going on in the Revolution of 1989 than a rejection of Communism’s political cruelties and economic idiocies. Something had stirred in the souls of the people who made the revolution, and that something had made for a different kind of revolution: a “final revolution.” It was not final in the sense of temporality (there would surely be other revolutions in the future), but it was final in the sense of “final causality” or destiny — the destiny of the human spirit liberated in the truth.

Weigel continues: “That was John Paul II’s view of things, too, and that agreement was the beginning of the bond between us.”

When Weigel finished his book The End and the Beginning (2010), on John Paul’s final years, he thought he was done with the subject, that “there was no more to be said.” But “I was wrong”: Lessons in Hope is a response to a “yearning to get to know more personally a saint who bent the course of history in a humane direction, and to know him in ways that didn’t quite fit the genre of serious biography.” He shares the result with readers, capturing the warmth and wisdom of John Paul, including stories of his interactions over the years with Weigel’s wife, Joan, and their children. For anyone in need of hope, this volume — with its reliable understanding of history and Catholic witness, sound analysis, and the humor of both the author and the saint — delivers in abundance.

Editor’s note: This piece has been changed since posting.

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