"Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II" - book reviewZENIT
Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II is destined to be the standard reference on the life and work of John Paul II reports Mary Ann Glendon.
In the September 29 English edition of the Vatican newspaper, LOsservatore Romano, Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon offers a lengthy review of George Weigels recently published work, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II.
Glendon, who is also a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, calls the new book a panoramic tapestry that will keep General readers ... swept along by the dramatic life story of the man who triggered the revolution of consciousness that led to the collapse of European communism, prepared the Catholic Church to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and touched the lives of hundreds of millions of women and men with his televised messages and worldwide pilgrimages.
But, most importantly, according to Glendon, Witness to Hope provides an introduction to the theological context without which the pontificate of John Paul II cannot be understood.
She points out that, in past works, most writers analyze this papacy in merely political terms, while at the same time showing little comprehension of the philosophical and religious commitments that undergird his decisions and actions. Or, as the Pope himself once remarked to Weigel in a private conversation: They try to understand me from the outside. But I can only be understood from the inside.
To undertake this feat, Glendon realizes that it requires a biographer with a rare combination of qualities. Such a person must be well grounded not only in Catholic thought, but in modern secular philosophies; politically sophisticated; independent of mind, yet able to think with the Church.
As a result of the analysis of his new book, and because of her first-hand acquaintance with the author, Glendon assures us that Weigel possesses all those qualifications plus a gift for explaining without simplifying that any theologian would envy.
As a further proof of his longstanding insight into the mind and thought of the present Pontiff, she recalls that it was precisely Weigel, in his book The Final Revolution, who first developed the argument that John Paul II had played a crucial role in the demise of the Soviet empire. An initial intuition that was later corroborated by numerous reports and world events.
Because of Weigels roughly 20 hours of personal dialogue with the Holy Father and his numerous conversations with many of Karol Wojtylas closest friends and collaborators, both past and present; as well as access to many previously unpublished documents and personal correspondence, Glendon considers that Witness to Hope will soon become the standard reference on its subject.
Delving more deeply into the contents of the 992 page volume, she believes the principal task that Weigel set himself was to understand how John Paul II came to his convictions, how he deepened them and how he learned to express, defend and bear witness to them.
The main points of Weigels analysis can be summed up as follows: He identifies eight achievements that guarantee John Paul IIs pontificate a special place in history: his revitalization of the papacy; his development of the full implications of Vatican II, thereby setting the Churchs course for many years to come; his role in the peaceful defeat of totalitarian regimes; his clarification of the moral challenges facing free societies; his placement of ecumenism at the heart of Catholicism; his dedication to progress in the Churchs relations with Judaism; his commitment to the dialogue with Islam; and his success in using modern means of transportation and communication to reach hearts and minds in every part of the world.
Seen from a more personal perspective, the man behind all these activities is portrayed as an intellectual with a warm appreciation of popular piety; a mystic who is also an avid sportsman; a celibate who celebrates human sexuality and has many women friends; a Pole with deep sensitivity toward Jews and Judaism; a man of profound inferiority with an exceptional public presence.
To this lay reader, she adds, Weigels most impressive achievement is his demonstration of the continuities among pastor Wujeks hands-on ministry in Poland; philosopher Wojtylas work on The Acting Person; the literary Wojtylas plays and poems; and Pope John Paul IIs Encyclicals and speeches. The thread that runs through them all is the Popes vision of the human person as an actor in the drama of salvation.
In a personal note, Mary Ann Glendon suggests that John Paul IIs leadership in making the Church a voice for the voiceless in international settings is so important that it would, I believe, have merited separate mention on Weigels list of the great achievements of this papacy.
Of course, in such a long papacy and with such complex issues at stake, there is always room for differences of opinion regarding the final explanation of this Popes words and deeds. Such is the case of his abundant writings.
When Weigel turns from John Paul IIs theology to his social Encyclicals, Glendon remarks, he enters more controversial territory. Not every faithful Catholic will agree with Weigels interpretations of the meaning of these much-discussed teachings, or of their relation to one another, but all should find his analyses intelligent and challenging.
On the other hand, the biography also tackles certain difficulties and even possible failings of this papacy, in as far as they affect the historical outcome of the Churchs overall public and pastoral mission.
Most of Weigels criticisms, writes Glendon, relate to the fact that Karol Wojtyla, whether as pastor, Bishop, Cardinal, or Pope, was never a micromanager. That lack of close supervision, Weigel concedes, was probably the price to be paid for the benefits of a papacy with great intellectual creativity and public impact.
As has been the case of many well-known biographers in the past, its often difficult for an author not to be personally influenced by the subject under scrutiny, in this case, Pope John Paul II. Weigel, for his part, has readily admitted that three years of intense investigation and close personal contact with the man, Karol Wojtyla, has left him deeply changed by the experience.
That is easy to believe, concludes Glendon, just as it is easy to believe that many readers will be changed by the opportunity this splendid biography provides to know John Paul II from the inside. ZE99100420
Rome Oct. 4, 1999 (ZENIT).
ZENIT is an International News Agency based in Rome whose mission is to provide objective and professional coverage of events, documents and issues emanating from or concerning the Catholic Church for a worldwide audience, especially the media.
Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University. She is the author of A Nation Under Lawyers: How the Crisis in the Legal Profession is Transforming American Society (Harvard University Press) Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse, and A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
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