George Weigel Illuminates Pope John Paul II And His ‘Witness To The Witness’

George Weigel Illuminates Pope John Paul II And His ‘Witness To The Witness’

In George Weigel's memoir of his life of John Paul II, he contemplates how his own life intersected with the historically consequential pope and provides 'Lessons in Hope' along the way.
Luma Simms

The butterflies cluster around the lantana plant in my backyard, in the Phoenician desert of Arizona. I see them as I look up from my desk. It’s a joy to provide sustenance to bees and butterflies in the way of well-watered flowering plants. I wasn’t as fastidious with my herb garden this summer. It died. But the devilish heat is waning and the cool temperatures will soon give me new mercies to replant my beloved herbs. And so it is with our souls—we are dry deserts perpetually in need of Living Water.

It is the way of God to use these signs to communicate his love, grace, wisdom, and goodness to us. In bread and wine; in butterflies, hummingbirds, and flower nectar; in gardens and in books. The book, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II by George Weigel is such a book—one given to the church and to all people of goodwill, to communicate the myriad of ways God acts in this world. God in his providence gave us a Karol Wojtyla–Joannes Paulus II, and he gave us a George Weigel, and he meant for us to learn from each, and from both, of them. “In the designs of Providence, there are no mere coincidences,” the Holy Father said on the one year anniversary of his attempted assassination.

From beginning to end, the Lessons in Hope moves symphonically between the two men’s lives. But as autobiographical as parts of this book are, Weigel never slacks off on his duty, which is to recount and interpret the life of Pope St. John Paul II.

The third part of the biographical triptych of Pope John Paul II, Lessons in Hope, is a book of stories that “make [St. John Paul II] present again by kindling memories or illuminating previously unknown aspects of his rich personality” writes Weigel. And he delivers! That yearning to know Pope John Paul II, especially for late converts like myself, is satiated through the stories Weigel recounts. In fact, Lessons in Hope could have been titled “Lessons of Hope,” because by the time the last sentence is read and the book, closed, hope is enflamed in the heart of the reader.

A Way of Not Dying

The book opens with Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the architect of the Ostpolitik, the Vatican’s diplomatic approach to the countries in the Warsaw Pact, and former secretary of state of the Holy See, remarking at a conference that Weigel should not be taken seriously, not only because he doesn’t understand Pope John Paul II, but because his analysis of the Catholic Church, communism, and the Ostpolitik approach, in the book The Final Revolution, was mistaken.

But the stories in Lessons in Hope and elsewhere are witness to the exact opposite. Not only does Weigel understand Pope John Paul II, as he has demonstrated through his biographies of the man, but he was and remains a clear voice on the destructive nature of the Ostpolitik deal with totalitarian regimes. Over and over again, Weigel recounts the struggles of faithful Catholics against their respective communist governments being undermined by clerical collaborators and communist moles in the Vatican.

This diplomatic approach was initiated by Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, through Cassaroli. The goal, as Weigel has put it, was to “find a modus non moriendi—a ‘way of not dying’—for the Catholic Church” in the counties controlled by communist governments. The deal was that if the Vatican refrained from correcting and criticizing communist regimes, those powers would not harm the churches in their respective countries. Someone should have told these well-intentioned men that giving in to bullies never works.

This view of the Ostpolitik bound not only Weigel and Pope John Paul II to the events of their times, it also bound them to each other in their life and work, and together in the biography project, they attempted to tell the truth about the human person and the communism.

The papal encyclical “Centesimus Annus” and the Ostpolitik feature prominently in the book, as they should, given their long-term effects. But they do so through stories, rather than analysis, as was the case in Weigel’s previous books. This makes the book accessible to all types of readers: the papal story lover, the alert Catholic who needs to be in-the-know, and the historically curious, who may or may not be Catholics.

A Life of Preparation

Weigel, born into a faithfully practicing Catholic family, recounts parts of his childhood in Baltimore, reading the events of his life through the eye of Providence, where events great and small, insignificant and noteworthy, were preparing him to be the pope’s biographer. He tells us stories of his youth, his studies and academic preparation, and his nascent career as a teacher and writer.

Weigel’s story is enlightening and inspiring. A sequence of events led this theology and philosophy professor and “roving catechist” working in Seattle to become the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and eventually to becoming the biographer of one of the most consequential popes in the history of the church. In fact, on one level, Lessons in Hope is also the story of Weigel’s career, and his faithfulness to the call to write and engage with the church and culture. Anyone in this line of work would benefit from that telling.

In many ways, Weigel’s approach in the book and to its two main characters, himself and Pope John Paul II, can be said to reflect the cultural, religious, and historical aspects which Pope John Paul II articulated in “Centesimus Annus” (#24) when he wrote:

Man is understood in a more complete way when he is situated within the sphere of culture through his language, history, and the position he takes toward the fundamental events of life, such as birth, love, work and death. At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence.

That is, Lessons in Hope interprets for us the pope John Paul II and the man Weigel “from the inside,” that is within the framework of each man’s cultural, religious, and historical milieu. In this, Weigel shows himself to be an exemplary disciple of the pope, teaching us to do likewise when we study the world around us, when we try to understand man and his institutions more completely.

Lessons in Hope not only teaches us about Pope John Paul II, but it gives us significant knowledge about the “witness to the witness,” Weigel. Through the integrity of his previous work, Weigel showed himself trustworthy, so much so that Pope John Paul II sent him a mandatum scribendi, a letter giving him the “mandate to write” his biography. The letter also served as John Paul II’s pledge of cooperation with the project.

His preparation for this work included not only his time teaching and writing for the Archdiocese of Seattle, but as scholar-in-residence at the World Without War Council, under executive director Stephen Boyd; a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars working on American Catholic thought on war and peace; then the James Madison Foundation in Washington DC which he helped establish; then on June 1, 1989 ascending to president of Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Finding Direction

Yet throughout those years he maintained his journalistic endeavors in foreign policy and religion, especially his writing on the church and the pope. Weigel’s writing was given gravitas by the work he was engaged in through the world of think tanks; the scholarly research, the journalism, and the presence of mentors in his life shaped him to be the man God intended to use as biographer to Pope John Paul II. Weigel’s career as scholar and writer was built before the advent of “platform building,” and as such it evinces the work of a man seriously engaged with the task at hand. It is also evident from the book that Weigel was so moved by the holy father’s deep love for Christ that imitating him was not sycophancy but one step deeper into holiness.

In the apostolic letter “Dies Domini,” Pope John Paul II wrote, “Do not be afraid to give your time to Christ! Yes, let us open our time to Christ, that he may cast light upon it and give it direction.” He said this in the context of how to keep the Lord’s Day holy, but that statement transcends that context—it is for all of life. This is something Weigel did. He was not afraid to give his time, energy, career, and life to God. He did so temporally by giving it to the holy father, by spending a good portion of his life witnessing to the witness.

Lessons in Hope is an inspiring book at a time in our culture when we so desperately need an illustration of goodness. I recommend it to all, but it would make an especially good gift to young priests, that they may understand a consequential pope, his witness George Weigel, and the history of the church they are destined to lead.

Luma Simms is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She writes on culture, family, philosophy, politics, religion, and the life and thought of immigrants. Her work has appeared at First Things Magazine, Public Discourse, The Federalist, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter: @lumasimmsEPPC.

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