When on October 16, 1978, he was met by some interesting news. "They've just elected a Polish pope," said a colleague. "Ah," Weigel thought, "so they've chosen Cardinal Wyszynski."
Over two decades later, the Pope's biographer recalled his lack of prophetic insight with a shudder of embarrassment.
'Little did I know," he said, in his mild Baltimore drawl, "how that event in 1978 was going to dramatically alter my own life."
Weigel began writing about Karol Wojtyla a few months after he (and not Wyszynski) was elected pope, and has been writing "almost non-stop" about him ever since. It was 13 years, however, before the author of Witness to Hope personally encountered John Paul II. Like many others, he was impressed by the Pope's naturalness, his lack of stiffness, his great curiosity and conversational gifts.
By spring 1995, Weigel was thinking seriously about the need for a biography that did justice to the Pope's self-understanding. Sure, the religion shelves of bookstores were filling up with papal biographies, but they all made the mistake of trying to understand him from the outside, of seeing him as a statesman rather than a religious leader. Last week, in Archbishop's House, Westminster, Weigel fired off their deficiencies with machine gun rapidity. Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi's His Holiness was a racy work of "fiction"; Jonathan Kwitny, author of Man of the Century, was a nice guy who "just made stuff up"; Tad Szulc's Pope John Paul II was interesting for the first 100 pages, but when it got onto the Church.. forgeddaboutit.
In December 1995, "over roast chicken and a good local wine", John Paul suggested to Weigel that he wrote a biography that approached the pontiff not from outside in, but "from inside out". Three weeks later, back in the United States, a plain grey envelope dropped through Weigel's door. When the author opened it, he found a letter manually typed by the Pope agreeing to cooperate with the biogra phy. The letter, Weigel archly noted, contained three spelling mistakes. Before Weigel began his research, he met the Pope to agree on two basic guiding rules. The first was that he would have access to the people and official documents that were crucial to understanding the pontificate. The second was that John Paul would not see the text until it was finished. The Pope replied to both conditions by saying: "Yes, that's obvious, now let us talk about something interesting."
So why did John Paul believe that Weigel could redress the biographical deficit? Or, to put it another way, what was the Weigel difference? The author's early life provides important clues. He was born in April 1951 in Baltimore, Maryland, the cradle of American Catholicism. His greatgrandfather was German, but Weigel's "thoroughly American" and "very Catholic" parents sent him to schools run by the Sisters of Notre Dame and later to a seminary college. Some time in his youth, he wondered if he was called to the priesthood, but realised it was not what God intended for his life. The realisation left no bitterness, only a deep empathy with priests, evident in his address to Westminster priests last week. "I have been very blessed never to have had a crisis of faith," he said. "My life as a Catholic has been a life, 1 hope, of deepening the faith into which I was baptised."
After college, in Baltimore and Toronto, Weigel became a teacher of theology. A few years later, in 1977, he left formal academic life and has been in the "think-tank world" ever since. In the 1980s, he was politically active, agitating for religious freedom in the communist world. His campaign brought him into contact with senators, congressmen and presidents of the United States.
At the end of the eighties, he became president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an influential Washingtonbased think-tank. There, as he watched the cold war world collapse, he became convinced that culture, not politics or economics, held the key to the future of humanity.
For readers of Witness to Hope, Weigel's list of intellectual influences will contain few surprises. High up were St Thomas Aquinas, the Second Vatican Council, John Paul II ("obviously"), Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Karl Rahner and Edith Stein. He also credited his friends and fellow American Catholic intellectuals, Cardinal Avery Dulles, Fr Richard Neuhaus and Michael Novak, with providing him a "very rich spiritual and intellectual environment" in which to work.
Under these influences, Weigel has made a profound and original contribution to what he described as "the intersection between moral theology and public affairs", notably in his 15 books on subjects ranging from just war theory to the Church's role in the collapse of communism. These writings, his intellectual tastes and his deep faith coincided so closely with John Paul's, that it is perhaps understandable that the Pope chose him out of the presumably thousands of authors who wished to tell his story "from the inside".
In1996, Weigel began a long series of "intense biographical conversations" with John Paul B. As the Pope plunged deeply into his 70-year memory, the author made some extraordinary discoveries. "There were a number of things 1 was simply unaware of prior to getting into this conversation with the Pope," he said. "The first is the tremendous influence of his father on his life. Secondly, the influence of Cardinal Sapieha of Cracow, who remains to this day his model of being a bishop. I also think the enduring impact of the Second World War was really the crucible in which he was formed and it remains in a sense a living part of his apprehension of reality."
Weigel also uncovered what the redtop papers would call worldwide exclusives, such as the revelation that John Paul wrote to the Russian premier, Leonid I3rezhnev, in 1980 urging him not to invade Poland. For Weigel, the letter powerfully exposed "what a profound threat this fearless man was to men who ruled by fear" and he is convinced that it led to the attempt on the Pope's life, less than a year later. "I think it is not an accident that letter was sent in December 1980 and unfortunate events took place five months later in St Peters Square," he said.
During his conversations with the Pope, Weigel also discovered that there were limits to his ability to enter John Paul ll's inner life and to understand him "from inside". "The Pope is a genuine mystic and like all genuine mystics there is a depth dimension of his spiritual life which takes place literally in a realm beyond words," he said. "It's not a question of my being unable to describe it: he is unable to describe it, because it is in a different order of reality. You're never going to quite get to the bottom of this, because the bottom is somewhere where no one else can go." This, Weigel said, could be seen every time the pontiff celebrated Mass, when the Pope seemed no longer to be there, but in an entirely different place.
Asked what the Pope said when shown the finished draft of Witness to Hope, Weigel revealed a diffident side. A plainly dressed man, whose only sign of personal extravagance is a monogrammed briefcase, he is happier discussing big ideas than recalling personal minutiae. "I think he and I deserve a little bit of privacy," Weigel said. "I'll just say he gave me a big, long hug. He's always kidding me about how long the book is. My constant response is that that's his fault, not mine."
When Witness to Hope was first published, in the autumn of 1999, it ended with an epilogue looking forward to the Jubilee Year and the start of the third millennium. Americans who buy the paperback version, published this year, will be able to read Weigel's newly penned analysis of the Holy Year. Those who buy the paperback in Britain, unfortunately, will not.
To give us an idea of what we are missing, Weigel said the Jubilee Year was a "synthesis" of John Paul Irs entire pontificate. Not a synthesis of past achievements, but "a synthesis aiming the Church into the future". The whole endeavour of the Jubilee was summed up by the Biblical image that recurred in the Pope's January Apostolic Letter, Novo Millennia Ineunte ("At the beginning of the new millennium"), where the fishermen-disciples were asked to cast their nets out into the deep.
Weigel cited the papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land as the most moving and pregnant event of the Holy Year. "The Holy Land visit demonstrated in a visual and almost tangible way that this is not a man who is saying: look at me. This is a man who is saying: look at Jesus Christ. And his ability to be transparent to the power of the Holy Spirit in the world, by simply emptying himself of himself, was nowhere more powerfully displayed than in the Holy Land."
or all his diffidence, Weigel has admitted that the encounter with John Paul II has radically changed his own life. In a touching passage in his 1996 book, Soul of the World, he wrote that "to experience human greatness is a grand thing; to be in the presence of a great man of extraordinary humility who takes an interest in your life, family, and work, and who encourages your efforts and invites you into his conversation, a hero with whom you can both pray and tell jokes, that is a marvellous thing".
Last week, he said his access to the Pope had made him "a man of deeper prayer". It had also given him a tangible sense of the universality of the Church, of a bond among peoples of every race, language and culture, that was "like no other bond in the world".
He also felt infected by the Pope's profound hope for humanity. "I hope that like the Holy Father, I'm a man of hope. However much we make a mess of things, God will triumph through the earthen vessels that make up the Church. I am quite convinced of that," he said.
"I am also hopeful that in many parts of the world Church, including parts of what we customarily think of as the secularised world, that there is a new openness to the Catholic proposal and an understanding of the hollowness, the flatness of secularism.
"I sense there is a new openness to the Church's offer of a vision of the human condition that is animated by Christ who reveals both the face of the Father and the true meaning of our humanity."
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Numbers cannot disclose the truth of a man's life "from inside". But numbers can illustrate the scope of a man's activity. The numbers involved in the Pontificate of John Paul II are staggering.
By October 16, 1998, the twentieth anniversary of his election, Karol Wojtyla had served as Pope for longer than all but ten men in history. In two decades . he had made eighty-four foreign pilgrimages and 134 pastoral visits inside Italy, travelling 670,878 miles, or 2,877 times the distance between the earth and the moon. During 720 days of pilgrimage outside Rome, he had delivered 3,078 addresses and homilies while speaking to hundreds of millions of men, women, and children, in person and through the media.
No human being in the history of the world had ever spoken to so many people, in so many different culture contexts. He had made more than 700 pastoral visits in Rome itself, to prisons, universities, religious institutes, convents, seminaries, nursing homes, hospitals, and 274 of the diocese's 325 parishes.
At his twentieth anniversary, his written magisterium included thirteen encyclicals, nine apostolic constitutions, thirty-six apostolic letters, fifteen other formal letters to particular persons or groups (including his groundbreaking letters to women and to children), nine postsynodal apostolic exhortations, 600 ad limina addresses, and thousands of audience discourses. The Insegnarnenti di Giovanni Paolo II, the printed record of his teaching, covers ten linear feet of shelf space in libraries. John Paul 11 was also responsible for promulgating two new codes of canon law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the first instrument of its kind in more than 400 years. In 144 ceremonies celebrating the universal call to holiness, he had beatified 798 men and women and canonised 280 new saints.
In two decades, he presided over and actively participated in five Ordinary Synods of Bishops, one Extraordinary Synod, and six Special Synods. In addition , he met constantly and at length with the world's bishop's during their quinquennial visits to Rome.
Between October 1978 and October 1998 he held 877 general audiences attended by 13,833,000 people, and received an additional 150,000 — 180,000 each year in special group audiences. Assuming an average of five private audiences per day, the total of these more intimate personal encounters easily tops 15,000 — and this does not include his daily conversations with guests at lunch and dinner, in the papal apartment or during his pilgrimages abroad.
In seven consistories he had created 159 new cardinals. At his twentieth anniversary, 101 of the 115 members of the College eligible to vote in a conclave were his nominees. During that same period, he also named some 2,650 of the Catholic Church's approximately 4,200 bishops.
During the first twenty years of his pontificate, the Holy See established diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level with sixty-four countries and restored such relations with six others, bringing to 168 the total number of countries with which the Holy See enjoyed full diplomatic exchange.
John Paul H had reshaped the Church's institutional face by his 1988 reorganisation of the Roman Curia and by creating new entities to meet new needs, including the John Paul II Foundation for the Sahel in 1984, the Populorum Pro gressio Foundation for Latin America in 1992, and two Pontifical Academies, for Life and for the Social Services, in 1994. The Pope also inspired the creation of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family at the Pontifical Lateran University. By 1998, the John Paul II Institute had affiliates in Washington, D.C., Mexico City, and Valencia. The influence of these advanced academic centres on Catholic moral theology was already being felt on the Pope's twentieth anniversary, and it seemed likely that that influence would expand in the twentyfirst century to touch dogmatic theology, philosophy and related fields.
These numbers and institutional facts tell a story of remarkable personal energy. Inside the numbers, it can be argued, is an even more impressive story of accomplishment that will shape the life of the Catholic Church – and the innumerable worlds-within-worlds of humanity that the Catholic Church touches — well into the third millennium of Christian history.
To assess a papacy before its conclusion is a difficult business. The task is slightly less daunting in this instance, because John Paul H's pontificate has been a series of variations on the one great theme he announced at his installations and in his 1979 inaugural encyclical, Redemptoris Hominis. Christian humanism as the Church's response to the crisis of world civilization at the end of the twentieth century. As he prepared to lead the Church into the celebration of the Great Jubilee of 2000, ten historic accomplishments of the pontificate of John Paul II could be identified.
John Paul II had radically recast the papacy for the twenty-first century and the third millennium by returning the Office of Peter to its evangelical roots. The world and the Church no longer think of the pope as the chief executive officer of the Roman Catholic Church; the world and the Church experience the pope as a pastor, an evangelist, and a witness. John Paul II broke the modern papal mould he inherited, not simply by being the first Slavic pope in history and the first nonItalian pope in centuries, but by living the kind of papal primacy envisioned in the New Testament: Peter as the Church's first evangelist, the Church's first witness to the truths revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is very difficult to imagine a twenty-first-century pontificate that deliberately returns to the bureaucratic-managerial papal model that
reached its apogee in the pontificate of Pius X11. John Paul II has decisively renovated the papacy for the twenty-first century by retrieving and renewing the evangelical primacy of Peter's office in the firstcentury Church. Here, perhaps, is the most telling example of John Paul II, the radical — the man of bold innovation for whom change means returning to the Church's roots, which he believes are expressions of Christ's will for his Church.
This dramatic renovation of the papacy was not accomplished by personal fiat or by reason of a singular personality, but by a Pope who is selfconsciously the heir and legatee of the Second Vatican Council. To grasp the pontificate of John Paul II "from inside" means recognising that John Paul has sought to secure the legacy of Vatican II as an epic spiritual event — the Council at which the Catholic Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, came to grips with modernity by developing a theologically enriched sense of its unique mission in and for the for the world.
No two conciliar texts have been so frequently cited in the teaching of John Paul H as sections 22 and 24 of Gaudium et Spes, the Council's Pastoral constitution on the Church on the Modern World. The Pope's debt to Vatican II, his profound conviction that the Council must be understood in religious rather than political or ideological terms, and his understanding of the Council's proposal to the world are synoptically captured here. In Gaudium et Spes 22, the Council Fathers taught that Jesus Christ reveals the face of God and the true meaning of human existence; in Gaudium el Spes 24, the Council taught that the meaning of human life was to be found in self-giving, not self-assertion. The Law of the Gift written into the human heart is an expression of the self-giving love that constitutes the interior life of God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To live the Law of the Gift is to enter, by way of anticipation, into the communion with God for which humanity was created from the beginning. Here, Gaudium et Spes told the modern world, is a destiny greater than you can imagine. And it is yours because you are greater than you think you are.
In John Paul Ifs understanding of the Council, everything else Vatican 11 did — its exploration of Christian personalism, its definition of the Church as a communion of believers, its renovation of the Church's worship, its dialogue with science, democracy, and the sexual revolution, its defence of religious freedom as the first of human rights — is a further explication of these two great themes: Christ, the redeemer of the world, reveals the astonishing truth about the human condition and our final destiny; selfgiving love is the path along which human freedom finds its fulfillment in human flourishing. In implementing Vatican II in Krakow, and in twenty years of a pontificate inspired by the conviction that God intended the Council to prepare the entire Church for a twenty-firstcentury springtime of evangelization, Karol Wojtyla has worked to secure the legacy of Vatican II as the Council of freedom – in the conviction that freedom is the great aspiration and the great dilemma of humanity on the edge of a new century and a new millennium. The properly evangelical response to the problem of freedom, he believes, is to be found in service. One great service the Church can do the modem world is to remind it that freedom is ordered to truth and finds its fulfillment in goodness. That was what Christ meant when he said that knowing the truth would set human beings free (see John 8.32). That is what the Church should propose to the late modem world as the means to realise its great aspiration. That, he was and is convinced, is what Vatican II was for.
That conviction inspired John Paul H's public accomplishments. His crucial role in the collapse of European communism cannot be understood as the accomplishment of a deft statesman. It can only be grasped "from inside" as the achievement of a courageous pastor, determined to speak truth to power and convinced that the word of truth, spoken clearly and forcefully enough, is the most effective tool against the tyranny of totalitarianism. By inspiring the revolution of conscience that made possible the nonviolent Revolution of 1989 against MarxismLeninism, John Paul helped restore the political freedom of his Slavic brethren behind the iron curtain. At the same time, he challenged broadly accepted understandings of the dynamics of history. History, he helped demonstrate, is driven by culture, and at the heart of culture is cult, or religion. By lifting up the witness of hundreds of thousands of Christian confessors against communist
tyranny, the pontificate of John Paul H demonstrated in action that Christian conviction can be the agent of human liberation.
The "priority of culture" was a lesson the Pope also applied to the quest for freedom in East Asia and Latin America, to considerable effect, and it was the challenge he posed to democracies old and new in the wake of the conununist crackup. If culture is the engine of history, then free economies and democratic political communities must be built upon the foundation of a vibrant public moral culture, capable of disciplining and directing the tremendous human energies set loose by freedom. In challenging the freedom of indifference and proposing freedom for excellence in the encyclicals Centesimus Annus, Veriiatis Splendor, and Evangelium Vitae, John Paul reconfigured the Church's social doctrine and scouted the terrain of public life in the twenty-first century, in which science and technology will make certain that questions of what constitutes human life and membership in the human community dominate the world's social and political agenda. Freedomn is always a fragile commodity. Its most secure foundation, John Paul has suggested time and again, is a recognition of the dignity of the human person as the bearer of rights endowed by God.