ó Private and Public ó With the Pope
Edition: John Paul II
Life That Changed the World
RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA
Weigel was given
unprecedented access to Pope John Paul II while he
prepared his biography.
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
have spent many years of your professional life
reporting on and writing about Pope John Paul II. What
has his impact been on you?
impact has been enormous, and on many levels.
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
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.
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?
asks this and, of course, there isnít a simple or
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
swore that it would only take 10 minutes.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
were several factors.
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.
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.
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?"
interior wrestling Wojtyla undertook at the conclave was
clearly resolved by the time he emerged from the vesting
room in his new papal garments.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
Karol Wojtyla learned from being Polish is that history
doesnít work the way we often suppose.
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
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
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.
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?
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
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?
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
the vast scope of John Paul IIís teaching, what will
stand out as his most lasting contribution?
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.
important subjects did John Paul II not treat ó
perhaps leaving them for early attention from his
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.
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
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.
papal pilgrimages became a signature event in John Paul
IIís papacy. How did he learn to be such a commanding
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.
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.
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?
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
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.