A Guide to the Rosary

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Moments ó Private and Public ó With the Pope


National Catholic Register

Special Edition: John Paul II 

A Life That Changed the World

April 10-16, 2005


George Weigel was given unprecedented access to Pope John Paul II while he prepared his biography.

But after 1999ís Witness to Hope was on the bookshelves, he found that the Pope had moved him in a far deeper way than merely as the subject of research for a book. He spoke with Father Raymond J. de Souza for the Register.

You have spent many years of your professional life reporting on and writing about Pope John Paul II. What has his impact been on you?

The impact has been enormous, and on many levels.

Intellectually, the Pope offered me a way of thinking about being Catholic in the modern world that was both faithful to the great tradition and fully alert to the possibilities to be teased out of contemporary thought. Spiritually, the Pope was a shining example of a life lived according to the Gospel without compromise. Professionally, of course, the Pope changed my life by agreeing to cooperate with my rather brash proposal that I write his biography.

Iíll certainly be thinking about John Paul II for the rest of my life, and not only because I intend to finish Witness to Hope, bringing the story to a close. Iíll be thinking about John Paul because he has been one of the decisive influences in my life.

During the course of your work, you had many private encounters with John Paul II. Is there a memory that stands out as particularly revealing of the man?

Everybody asks this and, of course, there isnít a simple or single answer.

But one encounter Iíll never forget took place in early January 2000. Some 150 graduates of the seminary in which Iíve taught in Poland since 1994 came to Rome for a reunion and to see the Jubilee Year in together. I had asked Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Popeís secretary, if the Holy Father would receive the group briefly.

I swore that it would only take 10 minutes.

"Theyíll sing the Holy Father a Christmas carol, he can greet the group and give them his blessing, and thatíll be that." To which Bishop Dziwisz agreed. So we had everybody gathered in the Sala Clementina, the Pope came in, we sang a Polish Christmas carol ó and then the Pope insisted on greeting every single person in the group, one by one, giving each person his blessing and a rosary. It lasted almost 45 minutes, perhaps more.

I couldnít look at Bishop Dziwisz, but when Dziwisz saw how much the Pope was enjoying himself with the students, he invited the seminary faculty to lunch the next day, so I assumed that all was forgiven.

Still, what does this tell us about the Pope? It reminds us that, for John Paul II, everybody was somebody for whom the Son of God had entered the world, suffered and died. This meant that everybody was a somebody, with infinite, indeed eternal, value.

Many great admirers have spoken of John Paul II as their hero. But often heroes seem less heroic to those who see them at close range. Did your "close-up" view change your estimate of him? How so?

Iíve never counted up the number of hours I spent in conversation with John Paul II, but it couldnít have been less than 50 ó possibly more. And over that protracted period of conversation, which spanned almost 15 years, I certainly learned things about him that I hadnít known before. Perhaps, most importantly for Witness to Hope, I learned how deeply the Second World War had left its impression on the man who would become pope.

I never ceased to be struck by the Popeís relentless curiosity: He always wanted to know more, to be in touch with the arguments and ideas, the books and the essays, that were making a difference.

I watched his sweet tooth in action with some amusement ó and I watched him head for the chapel after every meal to immerse himself in prayer with the interlocutor with whom he was always in deepest conversation ó the Lord to whom he had given his life.

So no, if anything, seeing Karol Wojtyla "up close and personal" gave me an ever greater respect for the rich human and spiritual texture of his life.

From a strictly historical perspective, Karol Wojtyla would have had no reason to think that he would be elected pope in 1978. Why, then, did he seem so at ease from even the first moments?

There were several factors.

He had gotten a few votes at the first conclave in 1978, so he couldnít have been unaware that at least some of his fellow-cardinals thought of him as a potential pope. In fact, and as I report in Witness to Hope, many of his friends thought he wasnít quite himself in September 1978, as if he were struggling emotionally and spiritually with a dilemma.

So I donít think Wojtyla went into the second conclave of 1978 wholly innocent of the idea that he might emerge as the 264th Bishop of Rome.

It was not an idea he welcomed, but he had to realize the reality of the thing. Why else would then-Father Dziwisz say to two of Wojtylaís oldest friends, prior to the closing of the conclave, "Pray for Cardinal Wojtyla. Pray that he returns to Krakow?"

Whatever interior wrestling Wojtyla undertook at the conclave was clearly resolved by the time he emerged from the vesting room in his new papal garments.

He had been a bishop for 20 years. Without pride, but also without false humility, he thought he knew how to be a bishop in the modern world ó and that, after all, was what he was being called to do, if now on a global stage.

This wasnít a matter of mere self-confidence, though. He really believed, as he once put it to me, that "if the Holy Spirit had seen fit to call the archbishop of Krakow to be the bishop of Rome, it must have meant that there was something in the experience of Krakow that was important for Rome, and for the Church around the world."

So, from the beginning, he was prepared to be himself, not as a matter of ego, but as the man the Holy Spirit had hammered into this distinctive shape over the course of 58 years.

In various places you have described John Paul II/Karol Wojtyla as having the emblematic 20th-century life. Why do you consider him the dominant figure of the 20th century?

Thereís a chronological argument: If "the 20th century" means the period between the outbreak of World War I and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Wojtylaís life spans virtually that entire period. He was a child of the Poland that only became possible because of the collapse of the Romanov, Hohenzollern and Hapsburg empires in the wake of the Great War, and, as such, he played a decisive role in the collapse of the communist enterprise that was another, if misbegotten, child of that same cataclysm.

Beyond the chronology, though, thereís the fact that few, if any, world figures wrestled with the great questions of the past century as long and as thoughtfully as Wojtyla.

Whether the issue was fascism, Nazism, communism, utilitarianism or relativism; whether the expression of that issue was the Holocaust, the gulag, abortion on demand, cloning or consumerism in the crass sense, he was engaged ó thinking, writing, acting.

Finally, thereís a moral argument: Itís hard to think of another figure on the world stage during this past century who combined the noblest aspects of human character ó including the capacity to summon others to lives of heroic virtue ó with a genuine humility. There was absolutely nothing of the demagogue in John Paul II. Yet he was an inspiring figure on a par with Churchill.

Much has been made of John Paul IIís Polishness ó often in a critical way. Why have you argued that being a "son of Poland" has been a key to understanding how the Holy Father understands history and the role of the Christian disciple in history?

What Karol Wojtyla learned from being Polish is that history doesnít work the way we often suppose.

For the past 200 years, people in the Western world have thought of history as the product of politics ó by which they mean the struggle for power; economics ó by which they mean the struggle for wealth; or some combination of the two. Poles know that power is not without consequences, often bad ones, in their experience.

But they also know that what drives history over the long haul is neither politics nor economics, but culture ó what men and women honor, cherish and worship. Change the culture ó inspire the culture ó and you can bend history in directions that seemed impossible on a narrower, political or economic reading of the signs of the times.

As for Christian discipleship, Polandís national experience has inclined it toward what we might call a Carmelite, or cross-centered, understanding of Christian discipleship. That aspect of the Polish spiritual heritage obviously left a deep mark on the soul of Karol Wojtyla, who lived to the end the truth that Good Friday always comes before Easter.

In 1992 (in The Final Revolution), you argued that John Paul II was integral to the peaceful defeat of the Soviet empire. That was controversial then, but now is widely accepted. What changed?

Some people changed their minds because (former Soviet President) Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that John Paul II had played a key role in that particular drama. Others changed their minds because it became obvious that no other explanation satisfactorily answered the question, "Why did 1989 happen when it did and how it did?"

Communism might well have imploded at some point under the pressure of it own economic ó indeed human ó implausibility; but why in 1989, and why nonviolently?

I donít think you get answers to those questions without taking full account of the revolution of conscience that John Paul ignited in Poland, and indeed throughout the whole region, in June 1979, as a result of his epic first pilgrimage to Poland.

That was the turning point, even if The New York Timesíeditorial for the day after the Pope left opined that, however inspiring the Pope had been, his visit would make no difference whatsoever to the politics of east central Europe. Which, I suppose, tells us something else: that The New York Times maintained a spotless record of getting John Paul II absolutely, spectacularly wrong for more than a quarter-century.

John Paul II has always declared his papacy to be in direct continuity with the work of Vatican II. Does the end of his papacy mark, in a certain sense, the end of the Vatican II era for the Church? Is it possible now to make an assessment of Vatican II/John Paul II as a pastoral project?

No, itís not.

Councils almost always begin with controversy, are conducted in controversy and result in controversy. Thatís why itís a blessing that, on average, thereís only one every hundred years. Itís still way too early to assess Vatican II, as authentically interpreted by John Paul IIís magisterium. That question can only be answered in the early 22nd century, which is long after my watch.

On the other hand, I think itís fair to say at this point that the teaching of John Paul II provided Vatican II with what it didnít provide itself: interpretive "keys."

Other councils had written creeds, condemned heresies, promulgated laws ó all of which were ways this or that council told you what it really had in mind. Vatican II provided no such keys. A set of such keys has arguably been forged by John Paul II. How they unlock the potential of Vatican II in the world Church remains to be seen.


In the vast scope of John Paul IIís teaching, what will stand out as his most lasting contribution?

Theologians, philosophers, and indeed every educated Catholic will be wrestling for a long time with what we might call the "anthropological turn," the turn to man, the turn to Christian humanism, in John Paul IIís teaching. Iíd include within that the "theology of the body," but also John Paul IIís social doctrine, especially as manifest in Centesimus Annus. The "turn to man" or "personalist turn" is not without its problems; it may not, for example, be the most fruitful entry-point for thinking about issues of war and peace, or international relations more broadly. Still, John Paul II was the first modern pope, in the sense of a pope with a thoroughly modern intellectual formation ó and the "personalist turn" was the embodiment of that.


What important subjects did John Paul II not treat ó perhaps leaving them for early attention from his successor?

John Paul didnít address what Iíve termed elsewhere "Catholic international relations theory" ó a distinctively Catholic way of thinking about the dynamics of world politics, and he didnít make any significant contribution to the development of Catholic just war thinking given the new circumstances of the post-Cold War world. Thatís a matter "ad extra," if you will, as is the question of whether the Catholic Church can develop a strategic approach to its dialogue with Islam, seeking quite deliberately to foster an Islamic "development of doctrine" in favor of religious tolerance and the politics of persuasion. Ad intra, I donít think the pontificate ever thought through the problems posed by national conferences of bishops dominated by bureaucracies ó a problem which is certainly not limited to the United States, and which represents a strange, even weird, imitation of the polity evolved by the dying denominations of liberal Protestantism.

What are the disappointments of John Paul IIís pontificate? Were there projects he wished to complete that remain unfinished? Did he see any major mistakes in the choices he made?

He didnít get to China. He didnít get to Russia. His ecumenical initiatives were applauded, but rarely engaged with the seriousness they deserved. He had to have been disappointed by the performance of some men in whom he had imposed great trust.

The papal pilgrimages became a signature event in John Paul IIís papacy. How did he learn to be such a commanding public presence?

He was a natural communicator, but also a man with serious training as an actor. "Actor," I know, often connotes "phony," and I donít mean that.

What I mean is a man who had developed a certain set of public skills ó timing, rhythm, improvisation ó that stood him in good stead on a stage far larger than that of his old Rhapsodic Theater in Krakow.

Many people expect that John Paul II will be declared a saint within 10 or 15 years. If that happens, what should he be the patron saint of?

Intellectuals, because he demonstrated what many deemed impossible: that it was possible to take both the great tradition of Christianity and the intellectual passions of modernity seriously.

In doing that, he embodied an image that I think was first proposed by Father Richard Neuhaus: a Church opening its windows to the modern world, certainly, but also a Church challenging the modern world to open its windows to the worlds of which it is part, including preeminently the world of transcendent Truth and Love.





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