I interviewed George Weigel about The End and the Beginning, the newly released second part of his biography of John Paul II. Weigel, the author of fifteen books and a weekly syndicated column, is a Roman Catholic theologian and Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Join us as we discuss why Pope John Paul II was a sign of contradiction, what Weigel’s most surprising discoveries were in his research, and how the last two months of Pope John Paul II’s life represented the Pope’s last encyclical. Listen to part 1 and part 2 of Gayle’s discussion with George Weigel about the life and legacy of Pope John Paul II.
GT: This is Gayle Trotter. I’m speaking today with George Weigel, author of the biography of Pope John Paul II, which was done in two parts. We will be discussing the newly released second part, called The End and the Beginning. Pope John Paul II was a polarizing figure. Internationally, he commanded great respect and love, as shown by the throngs who attended World Youth Days. On the other hand, he embittered celebrities like Sinead O’Connor, an Irish singer who infamously tore up his picture during a Saturday Night Live appearance, while she said, “Fight the real enemy.” Politically, he emboldened those heroes in the battle for freedom and democracy; while at the same time, he was the target of extreme hatred and plotting by the KGB, Stasi and Polish police. Mr. Weigel, why was Pope John Paul II such a contradiction?
GW: Well, let’s start with Sinead O’Connor. Two hundred years from now no one will remember who Sinead O’Connor was or why she behaved in such a ridiculous and silly manner. Two hundred years from now people of all faiths, people of no faith but with a genuine concern for human dignity, will be wrestling with the thought of Pope John Paul II. So the fact that Sinead O’Connor behaved like an idiot on Saturday Night Live is of no consequence to any of this. John Paul II was a sign of contradiction because that’s what Christians are. The Christian understanding of the human person, particularly as that relates to our embodiments as male and female, is a sign of contradiction in a culture like the culture of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, in which men and women imagined that everything is plastic and malleable, including their own humanity. And he insisted that no, there’s something, there’s a givenness to the human condition and that there’s a beauty in that givenness that we miss if we insist that it’s all changeable and fungible and malleable. So that was one reason why he was a sign of contradiction. I think he was also a sign of contradiction in the broader sweep of history in that no one expected in the last quarter of the 20th century that a Polish priest and bishop would become the pivotal figure in one of the great historical turning points of modernity, namely the collapse of European communism. And people often behave oddly when their assumptions about what makes history work don’t quite pan out. So, I think we’re actually over that part of the critique of John Paul II. I mean any reasonable student of the last 22 years of the 20th century, in the last dozen years of the Cold War, recognizes what a crucial role he played in bringing to an end the greatest system of tyranny in human history, and doing that in the main without violence, which was no small accomplishment. But the argument about the Christian claim, which he embodied in a singular way, is going to continue for a very long time, and we shouldn’t be surprised by that.
GT: Well, he was such a towering figure. How did you set out to embark on such a large and momentous project as writing about his life?
GW: In 1995, I had been writing about John Paul II for almost 17 years; that is from the beginning of the pontificate. And it seemed to me quite bizarre that while there had been several attempts at comprehensive, major biographies of the Pope, there had not been one that was really reliable. And I thought I could do this. I had, as I say, been writing about him for more than a decade and a half. I had written the first book arguing that the Pope and the Church were crucial in the collapse of communism – we’ll call it the “final revolution.” I had been in personal conversation with him for some time. I had an academic background that prepared me to explain his complex mind and thought in a way that ordinary people could understand, people without some sort of specialized training. So I thought I could do this, and I thought it was investing 15 years in doing it. So that’s what I’ve done. Witness to Hope, the first volume of the biography of Pope John Paul II was published in 1999 and is now available in some 14 languages around the world.
GW: With two more coming. And The End and the Beginning, which completes the story and deepens the story, was just published in September 2010. So I have done what I set out to do, thank God, in 1995. And I hope this provides for the foreseeable future, a reference point – a reliable reference point – for anyone who wants to wrestle with the remarkable human story as well as the very challenging thought of one of the largest-scale figures of our time.
GT: Would you consider the Pope was your friend?
GW: We had a very friendly relationship. It was a very mature relationship. We didn’t agree about everything. I think he thought of me as someone who understood him and could interpret him, particularly to the English-speaking world. I certainly admired him enormously, without agreeing with him on all of his prudential judgments. So yes, I mean I would say it was a friendship, but that the friendship did not get in the way of an honest conversation.
GT: Would you say that made it easier to undertake this monumental task? Or maybe harder?
GW: I don’t think it makes it harder. I never was a sycophant. I mean I understand no human being is perfect. I had spent virtually my entire adult life in dealing with senior figures in the Catholic Church, so I was not over-awed by the fact that I found myself in the Vatican on a regular basis dealing with high-ranking churchmen. I had a lot of experience in doing that. I think the idea of the biographer as prosecuting attorney is a bad idea. This began with Lytton Strachey in the late 19th century with a dreadful book called Eminent Victorians, in which he really tried to chop down the reputations of Florence Nightingale and Cardinal Manning and several other people. This is a very bad idea. The biographer’s task is to try to understand the subject as he or she understood themselves. Then you can make some judgments about whether that understanding and how it was applied to the world was an accurate or adequate one. But to begin with the idea that you know, “Everybody’s a crook and I’m gonna find out what was crooked about this person…”
GT: Right, right.
GW: This is really a dumb way to try to grasp the essence of a life.
GT: Was their anything surprising that you found when you were writing these books?
GW: Oh, there’s lots of stuff that was surprising. I mean in the new book, The End and the Beginning, I bring to the public for the first time materials from the files of the KGB, the Polish Secret Police, the East German Stasi, the Hungarian Intelligence Service, all of whom were working overtime to impede the work of Karol Wojtyla – of Pope John Paul II – who were working overtime to penetrate the Vatican, in which they were unfortunately successful. This is all very, very dramatic stuff. And the whole story of Wojtyla’s 40-year contest with communism is the stuff of novels. And indeed several people have said that the first third of The End and the Beginning reads like a spy novel.
GT: Yes, yes it does.
GW: To which I have to say “thank you,” but let’s remember that all of this really happened.
GT: And that makes it even more compelling, right?
GW: I think so. And I think it magnifies his own achievement, that in the face of this vicious and concerted opposition, he was able to remain true to the truths by which he tried to live his life, and had an enormous impact on history because of that. In preparing Witness to Hope in the late 1990s, I would say the two biggest surprises were to come to recognize the degree to which the experience of the second world war was the formative experience of John Paul II’s life, and then to discover that he had been nurtured as a man, and as a priest, and a bishop, and later as a pope, by a remarkable network of lay friends…
GT: How do you pronounce the…
GW: …men and women. Srodowisko is what they called themselves.
GW: It’s a Polish word that’s basically untranslatable; means something like environment, or millieu, or whatever. This was a gang of networks of men and women whom he met when they were first in university in Krakow in the late 1940s, early 1950s, and he was a young university chaplain. These people remained among his closest friends until the end of his life. As he was forming them into mature Catholic laity, they were forming him into one of the most dynamic young priests of his generation. And it was a remarkable set of friendships that endured – as I indicate in The End and the Beginning – literally to the end of the Pope’s life with 70 of these people attending his funeral, sitting right behind the heads of state. I would have put them in front of the heads of state myself, but the Vatican has its own protocols.
GT: He probably would have too, right?
GW: He would have winked and nodded at them and gone along with the way that diplomatic protocol required.
GT: Well, there’s a charming story about his birthday, where he celebrated at Castle Gandolfo?
GW: Castel Gandolfo.
GT: And some of these members came, and they brought a kayak, which is what he had done with them, kayaking and mountain climbing.
GT: And he wasn’t able to do that, obviously at the end of his life, but they, you know, “mountain to Mohammed.” They brought the kayak.
GW: They brought the kayak. And you can still see the kayak in Krakow. If you know…
GW: If you know the right people.
GT: Have you seen it?
GW: I have.
GT: Oh, that’s great.
GW: I’ve seen some of the sacred kayaks.
GT: So on this young people topic, there’s a great quote in your book about how the Pope did not pander to young people, but he challenged them.
GW: I think that was a large part of his attraction to young people, because again here he was a sign of contradiction. Young people today live in a culture that panders to them in everything from language and modes of dress to expectations, which have been dumbed down to an astonishing degree. John Paul II did not pander to young people. He said to them in virtual infinity of variations on the same theme, “Don’t ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that God’s grace makes available to you. You’re going to fail. That’s no reason to lower the bar of expectation. Get up, dust yourself off, seek forgiveness and try again. But don’t level the bar of expectation because you’re demeaning your own humanity if you do that.”
GT: Right, right. Well, another figure against communism, a towering figure, was Reagan. And Reagan and the Pope had a special relationship I would say, kind of similar tracks. And they both respected what they were each doing in their own spheres. And in the book you draw a parallel between the two of them, and things that they had experienced, and especially the assassination attempts and their reactions to it. And Pope John Paul II came out from the assassination attempt from the hospital and his attitude was one of forgiveness of the assassin, of the attempted assassin. And Reagan had kind of a similar reaction to it as well. Can you talk about that at all?
GW: I wouldn’t over stress the parallelism of the assassination attempts, although it’s quite striking that they took place within two months of each other in the spring of 1981.
GW: I think the deeper parallelisms between these two lives is that these were men who were both orphans, fairly early. John Paul II literally, Reagan metaphorically, given the troubles of his father. They were both men of the theater, who had a profound conviction that the word of truth spoken forcefully enough was a real factor in human affairs. They both had the ability to project a kind of confidence about the human future while being realists about the circumstances of our times. They both got to positions that no one ever expected them to get to, and they were both dismissed as “conservatives” by people for whom that word was often a placeholder for “reactionary”. This was complete nonsense in both cases. The truth of the matter was that both men were radicals. John Paul II was a radically converted Christian disciple and Reagan was a genuine radical in terms of the Cold War, which he believed should be won and not managed. And so there was a lot in common here. There was no holy conspiracy. There was no joint strategic planning. But these were two men who were each pursuing their own responsibilities in a way that ended up delivering the death blows to the communist system in Central and Eastern Europe. And I think the Pope retained a great respect for President Reagan until the end of Reagan’s life. I remember a conversation with John Paul II, about six months before President Reagan died, in which I told the Pope that Reagan’s Alzheimer’s was such that he no longer remembered being president. And the Pope just found this immensely sad because he, John Paul II, was a deeply reflective man and I think he just couldn’t imagine what it would be like not to be able to reflect on your life because you had no grasp of that in your memory. So a lot of mutual respect in both directions.
GT: In the second book you talk about the Great Jubilee of 2000 as being kind of a hinge point of the pontificate and I was interested to learn… not being Catholic, I’m not familiar with the Holy Door but there’s been a lot of discussion about the symbolism of the Holy Door and the effort to eradicate or at least manage the international debt that some celebrities like U2 got on board with. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about the Great Jubilee and what a pivot point that was for his pontificate.
GW: Well, Poles culturally have a great sense of the importance of anniversaries. I’m not sure what the origins of this are, but it’s something deeply embedded in Polish culture. John Paul II, as the Archbishop of Krakow had had a powerful experience of the millennium celebrations of Polish Christianity in 1966-67 and how that had become the occasion for a kind of re-catechises, or re-education, of the whole nation in the Christian faith at the roots of its Christian experience. For him the year 2000 was not some sort of calendrical accident. It was something that provided an enormous opportunity to remind the world of the centrality of the incarnation, the centrality of the figure of Christ in human history, and to reenergize the church for a new millennium of evangelization and witness so this became the focal point toward which the pontificate from 1978 to 2000 was directed. The Holy Door tradition is an ancient one in Rome; it symbolizes in some respects the opening of a special moment of grace and divine favor. What was interesting symbolically about the opening of the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica on the night of December 24-25, 1999, Christmas Eve, was that unlike previous occasions when the Pope would knock on this masonry wall and the wall would fall down and there would be all this dust and whatnot and he’d clear the way and the door would open, they took all the masonry, the bricks of the door on one side, away beforehand, so that all the Pope did was push the doors gently open, which I think was his way to symbolize another great theme of his pontificate, the divine mercy: the merciful father who reaches out to prodigal sons and daughters and offers them the possibility of communion with him. So that was a great moment – I was actually there for that with my family in St. Peter’s and it was a very memorable night indeed.
GT: Well, speaking of opening doors, he also really was reaching out to other faiths and people – separated brethren, Protestants as well, and he had a big emphasis on ecumenism and in the book you detail how at one point he kissed a Koran and he also went to Yad Vashem in Israel and also talked about how he reached across all sorts of divides: Orthodox divides, Russian Orthodoxy and all the other churches out there that have been split from the Catholic church and it was part of his heart to try and heal some of those…
GW: On the question of Christian unity, John Paul II believed that God’s gifts are permanent, that Christ bequeaths the church the gift of unity at the beginning, that we had made a mess of this as Christians and it was our task to recompose the fullness of that unity, the fundamentals of which had never been completely lost. He was not altogether successful in this, for a variety of reasons which we probably don’t have time to get into but people can explore that in The End and the Beginning. He also believed that there was a deep bond between Christianity and living Judaism and that the people who claimed Abraham as their father in faith ought to be talking together again not only about civil intolerant societies but about the deeper truths of God’s revelation in Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus. The Pope’s kiss of a Koran, which was wildly controversial in some circles, was an expression of esteem for Muslim piety. John Paul II had no theological illusions about the Islamic thought system and the claims of Islam to have superseded both Christianity and Judaism and he knew that Islam had a very different idea of the God of the Bible than Jews and Christians did. I think what gets missed a lot in all of this is the Pope’s outreach to another quasi-religious system and that is the world of modern science, which purports to be an all-purpose explanatory system, like many religions, and the Pope’s intense interest in forging a new conversation between the people of faith and both the hard sciences and the life sciences I think was quite a prominent theme in the pontificate and bore some real fruit with physics, astronomy, chemistry – the hard sciences, got very difficult with the life sciences – biology, genetics and so forth – for obvious reasons having to do with some morally dubious developments in biotechnology. But the conversation today is much more robust than it was 30, 40 years ago and that’s part of the accomplishment of John Paul II as well.
GT: At the end of your second book you talk a little bit about the shortcomings of the pontificate. You go into Iraq, the Long Lent, dealing with the priest sexual abuse scandals, you also talk about the European demographic issue and the Legionary of Christ founder Marcial Maciel.
GW: I think the most significant of these for the long term, in terms of challenges the Pope faced and tried to address and history was simply not prepared to allow him to be successful is the question of Europe. John Paul II had a sense that Europe was dying as a civilization. That having cut itself off from its Christian roots it had found nothing to fill its life except the pursuit of immediate gratifications. This had led, among other things, to the most catastrophically low birth rates in human history and a literal emptying out of the continent of Europe – a vacuum, as we all know, now being filled by immigrant populations from a very different civilizational orbit and with a very different idea of the human future. And he tried for 26 ½ years to summon Europe back to its Christian roots and we will have to see whether those efforts bear some fruit. But just this morning before our conversation I was reading a speech by the so-called president of the European Union, [Herman] Van Rompuy, in which he was calling Europe back to a rediscovery of its roots which he described as Ancient Greece. Now, look, classical civilization plays a large role in the formation of the West but to talk about the roots of Europe without talking about Christianity, which among other things preserved the civilization of antiquity during the so-called Dark Ages, is mindless self-lobotomization here, you’re just cutting off your own historical memory. That illustrates the kind of problem that John Paul II faced and I have to say that the odds on him having won that argument are not looking particularly good five years after his death. But history is full of surprises and we will see where all of that goes.
GT: On a final note, I thought that the way that you described the end of Pope John Paul II’s life as being his last encyclical was a really beautiful word picture of what he suffered and what it meant to the rest of the world through his suffering.
GW: I think the last two months of his life were his last great teaching moment, to use the stock phrase. He invited people into an experience of the mystery of suffering transformed by identification with the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. And he did it not by a lot of words, but simply by the example of a man courageously walking the way of his own cross, and that had a fantastic and unexpected impact. One of his oldest friends, a layman, told me on the last Easter Sunday of the Pope’s life, just six days before he died, “I think they’re finally beginning to understand him.” And I think that’s exactly right. I think the world finally got clear, at the very end of the tale, that this man was first, foremost and most fundamentally a Christian disciple. And that everything else he did – for the world, for the cause of human rights, for the cause of religious freedom, for the liberation of his Slavic brethren in Central and Eastern Europe, for the Catholic church, for the Christian church, et cetera, et cetera – was a manifestation of that discipleship.
GT: So it all stemmed from his relationship with Christ and his dedication to his faith.
GW: It all stemmed from that.
GT: Well, thank you very much, Mr. Weigel, for speaking with us.
First published in First Things in December 2010