American author George Weigel has released the second volume of his biography of Pope John Paul II, “The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy” (Doubleday, $32.50). The best-selling first volume, “Witness to Hope,” was published a little over 10 years ago, in preparation for the 2000 Jubilee.
Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Weigel about the late pontiff and his handling of the clergy sex abuse crisis, his relationship with successor Pope Benedict XVI, and his final months, which Weigel calls “his greatest public witness to the paschal mystery of the crucified and risen Lord.”
Our Sunday Visitor: What is the connection between “Witness to Hope” and this new book?
George Weigel: “The End and the Beginning” completes the biography of John Paul II; “Witness to Hope” covers the pope’s life through 1998. The new book brings the story to its dramatic conclusion, while offering an in-depth assessment of the man and his accomplishments. I have also made extensive use of recently available and previously top-secret Soviet-bloc intelligence and foreign ministry files to revisit the drama of the communist war against the Catholic Church.
OSV: How was he involved as a younger man in the struggle against communism? How did he gain the reputation that would make him a concern for communist leadership?
Weigel: This was part of [Karol] Wojtyla’s priestly ministry from the beginning, although it was never understood in his own mind as political activity. It was understood as pastoral activity. But in those circumstances, when he was forming groups of university students into mature Christian young men and women, and then working with their families, effective pastoral work was a form of resistance. He was creating zones of freedom within a totalitarian society.
Then, of course, when Wojtyla became auxiliary bishop of Kraków, and then archbishop of Kraków, he had a more direct responsibility for the defense of the rights of the Church. I think what scared the Communist Party as a whole was that he became not only a defender of the rights of the Church and its people, but a defender of human rights, period. And he had a unique way of speaking to workers and intellectuals, people across the social divides. By the time he was elected pope, he had a deep and broad influence, and the communists were terrified that he might succeed Cardinal Wyszyński as primate of Poland. That turned out to be the least of their worries.
OSV: The pope was known for his devotion to Our Lady and for encouraging the faithful to pray the Rosary. Did he have any other models or devotions that were important to him as a younger man?
Weigel: As I put that part of his life and the later part of his life together, I think it’s not an accident that the Divine Mercy devotion was something he wanted to bring from the Polish Church into the universal Church. Wojtyla was acutely aware of the human agony of the early and mid-20th century, whether that was caused by German National Socialism or Soviet Communism, and I think he saw in this prayer a distinctive facet of God’s face turned toward the world — Divine Mercy as a remedy for the rent, the tear, the shredding of humanity that took place through the great mid-20th-century tyrannies.
OSV: Is it now established as a fact that Soviet intelligence was behind the attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul?
Weigel: No, and it likely never will be. This was not the kind of affair in which someone would have committed to paper an assassination order. But as I demonstrate in “The End and the Beginning,” using KGB, East German Stasi and Polish secret police materials, the communist leadership regarded the newly elected Pope John Paul II as a mortal threat to their own survival. Reasonable people will draw the reasonable conclusion about who was ultimately responsible for what happened on May 13, 1981.
OSV: How do you rate his handling of the sex abuse scandals in the United States?
Weigel: I describe his role in the scandals of 2002 in some detail in the book. If you look at his pontificate as a whole, I think reasonable people will conclude that Pope John Paul II was a great reformer of the priesthood, which was in terrible shape when he became pope in 1978.
OSV: What did he do to reform the priesthood, and how does this relate to the scandals?
Weigel: The first thing he did to reform the priesthood was model in his own life a heroic, self-sacrificing, paternal form of the priesthood. This provided inspiration to tens of thousands of men around the world, who saw in that the kind of life they wanted to emulate. And the kind of men who were attracted to that heroic, paternal model of the priesthood are men who de facto are going to be less likely to be abusive in any way, whether sexually or pastorally. As pope, he also wrote a letter to every priest in the world each Holy Thursday, laying out this idea of the priesthood.
In 1990 he called an international synod of bishops to discuss the reform of priestly formation, and completed that work with what is perhaps the longest document of his pontificate, Pastores Dabo Vobis, which really began reform in American seminaries, well before the events of 2002.
I think he was surprised by the magnitude of the scandal in the United States, but once he was fully aware of what the realities were, he acted decisively.
OSV: In his last year or two, was he fully capable of functioning as pope?
Weigel: His last two months, in particular, were his greatest public witness to the paschal mystery of the crucified and risen Lord — so, yes, he was “functioning as pope” to the very end.
OSV: “His greatest public witness to the paschal mystery.” Could you explain?
Weigel: Catholic priests invite people to enter into the central mystery of Christian faith, which is that Easter comes after Good Friday. The last two months of Pope John Paul’s life, which I call in the book his “last encyclical,” were a magnificent living out of that priestly role, asking people to consider the possibility that human suffering, which often appears absurd and meaningless, can be conformed to the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ in a way that gives it a very luminous quality.
OSV: Pope John Paul coined the phrase the “culture of life.” What do the events of his final months teach us about the “culture of life”?
Weigel: That was another part of the extraordinary witness of his last few months. By his own way of living that last phase of his life, he demonstrated that there are no disposable human beings, and that while there may be a temptation to find so-called technological solutions to misery and suffering, that sort of thing is really very dehumanizing. So he lived what he taught, all the way through.
OSV: Pope Benedict often speaks of the continuity between himself and Pope John Paul, but they are obviously very different in many ways. How are they alike, and how are they unalike?
Weigel: They are both products of the Catholic renaissance in central Europe in the mid-20th century; they are both men of the Second Vatican Council, in which both played important roles; they are both committed to the new evangelization and to confronting aggressive secularism in Europe. The personality differences are obvious, but of far less importance than the thematic continuities.
OSV: What was their relationship like?
Weigel: In retrospect, their collaboration will be viewed by historians as one of the great such collaborations in the history of the Church. It was a genuine, mutual exchange of gifts, so to speak, and it involved a great deal of genuine humility on both sides. Each recognized in the other something that he did not have, and instead of being resentful of that, they found a way to serve the Church together.
OSV: You clearly were close to him. Do you miss him? Do you pray to him?
Weigel: I think of him every day, and, yes, I have prayed for graces through his intercession in any number of instances.
OSV: What do you think he will be most remembered for?
Weigel: Two hundred years from now, he will be remembered for his pivotal role in the collapse of European communism and for the depth and breadth of his magisterium; at the moment, he is well remembered as the greatest Christian witness of our time.
Elizabeth Shaw writes from Washington, D.C.