The Enduring Legacy of Pope John Paul II

George Weigel, author of a 992-page biography of Pope John Paul II, talks about the Holy Father and the process of writing this important account.
by Katrina J. Zeno | Source:
Most writers try to understand me from the outside,” Pope John Paul II said to writer George Weigel as the two paused outside his papal apartment, “but I can only be understood from the inside.”

George Weigel didn’t need any further encouragement. The two had just finished discussing the ground rules for a papal biography in which Weigel had requested ready access to the Holy Father, his friends, associates, and restricted materials. He also insisted that the Holy Father not see a word of the book until it was finished.

“That’s obvious,” the pope said in reply. “Now let’s talk about something
interesting.” And talk they did over the course of the next 18 months. During that
time, Weigel collected 10,000 pages of documentation, interviewed Karol Wojtyla’s teachers, classmates, friends, and colleagues in Poland and Rome, and deepened his conversation with Pope John Paul II, poet, teacher, and priest.

“The best decision I made was to write nothing for one-and-a-half years,” Weigel told a packed house of students, faculty, and friends at Franciscan University last April.

“I’d been writing so much about the pope that I thought my nose was pressed too close to the window. I needed to step back and get a clearer picture.”

The picture that began to emerge was a fascinating combination of human qualities: John Paul II as a contemplative and a sportsman, as a priest and an intimate friend of the laity, as a literary scholar and an analytical writer, as a man with a deep interior life and a fun-loving human being.

“The range of qualities in this one life is remarkable,” Weigel said. “There have been mystics in the Church before, but rarely ones who combined mysticism with a profound interest in contemporary philosophy and a robust sense of humor. You can’t imagine going down to the local pizzeria with St. John of the Cross, but you can imagine going with John Paul II.”

The greatest challenge in writing the pope’s biography was how to tell the story chronologically while including the ideas and convictions that shaped the two hundred and sixty-fourth pope. To solve this problem, Weigel begins the complex story with a prologue titled, “The Disciple.”

“That’s who Karol Wojtyla is at the deepest level of his person,” Weigel explained. “He is a Christian disciple so thoroughly convinced of the truth that the Church bears in history that this conviction shapes his life 24 hours a day.”

It also shaped the opening line of his first papal encyclical, The Redeemer of Man, where Pope John Paul II proclaimed: “Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of Man, is the center of the universe and of history.” It is this conviction George Weigel attempts to present “from the inside” by digging into the deeper meaning of John Paul II’s words and actions.

“Every encounter John Paul II has with a person, whether it’s Mikhail Gorbachev or the Italian Association of Hairdressers, all happens within the horizon of this life-shaping conviction,” Weigel said. “Whether the pope is acting liturgically, administratively, pastorally, or as a teacher, he is a Christian disciple witnessing to Jesus Christ.

Scaling the pope’s ideas and convictions down to a portable size kept Weigel writing for 11 months: 25 pages a day, 7 days a week. Using a self-constructed outline of 160 pages, he typed away at his computer
beneath his two favorite icons: the White Crucifixion of Marc Chagall and the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. Finally, in November 1998, the first draft of 2,200 pages was finished.

“Throughout the entire project I had the tremendous sense this was exactly what I was supposed to be doing at this moment in my life,” Weigel said. “It was what everything else I had done before was pointing to.”

That “everything else” included his studies in philosophy and theology, serving as president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, co-founding an academic summer institute in Poland, and
authoring The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse
of Communism
. In Final Revolution, Weigel was one of the first writers to demonstrate John Paul II’s pivotal role in communism’s collapse. It was this book that caught the pope’s attention in 1992, resulting in an invitation to meet the Holy Father personally. “The pope was intrigued by my analysis,” Weigel said, “not because I lifted up his role, but because I lifted up the role of the human spirit, of moral power, in the collapse of communism.”

This keen insight into the human spirit along with his ability to synthesize large amounts of information helped prepare Weigel for the daunting task of writing the pope’s biography. After three and a half years, his research and writing culminated on September 26, 1999, when Weigel presented the Holy Father with the 992-page biography.

“The first thing the pope did was weigh the book in his hand. Then he weighed it again,” Weigel told the amused crowd. “I think he was amazed at the size.”

Since not everyone has time to read the lengthy biography, Weigel graciously condensed John Paul II’s monumental papacy into 10 enduring achievements for his audience.

“Taken together, these 10 achievements make it plausible to argue that this pontificate has been the most consequential since the sixteenth century and the Counter-Reformation,” Weigel stated. “What a great thing to have lived at the same time and to have shared this piece of the galaxy with this great soul.”

And thanks to papal biographer George Weigel, we not only share this piece of the galaxy with Pope John Paul II, but we can understand him from the inside.

Reprinted with permission from Franciscan Way Magazine. All rights reserved.

Katrina J. Zeno is a conference and retreat speaker and freelance writer living in Steubenville, Ohio, with her 14-year-old son Michael.

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