Pope John Paul II: The Biography. By Tad Szulc. (New York: Scribner. 1995. Pp. 542. $27.50.)
Aptly subtitled The (not merely A) biography of Pope John Paul II, Szulc's timely book will predictably have the field to itself for the indefinite future. All of the other biographies of the Pope accessible to this reviewer, whether in the original language or in translation, pale in comparison to it or, in the vernacular, cannot hold a candle to it.
Born and raised in Poland, Szulc has spent his entire adult life working, first, as a highly respected reporter for The New York Times in New York City, Rome, and several Latin American capitals and, more recently, as an unaffiliated free-lance writer with a dozen boo to his credit, plus a number of nationally syndicated interviews, including one with John Paul II on Catholic-Jewish relations. It is tempting for some critics to denigrate even serious historical works by an academically uncredentialed writer as "mere" journalism which, in their view, does not measurer up to the exacting standards of professional scholarship in the field. In the case of Szulc's book, that would be a serious mistake. The incredible range and depth of his on-the-spot, person-to-person research in Poland, Rome, the United States, and other countries; his unprecedented personal access to John Paul II and to the Pope's closest friends, colleagues, and collaborators both in Poland and in Rome; his firsthand knowledge of the Vatican and the Roman Curia; his personal knowledge of the political situation in Poland; and his privileged entree to the leaders of both Church and State in Poland, Rome, and elsewhere, will be difficult for future historians to match simply on the basis of archival research
In short, there is something to be said for the writing of serious history by an experienced reporter while all or most of the principals are still alive and accessible and because they have confidence in his judgment and respect his Expertise and professional integrity, are willing to provide him on the record with essential background information which is not available, and may never become available, in their official archives. On the latter score, Szulc has uncovered several "scoops" which are of more than passing interest and significance:
The never-before told story of how the Polish Communist regime influenced the elevation of Bishop Wojtyla to Archbishop, the key step on his road to the papacy;
The real story, based on handwritten notes, of the delicate negotiations between Gorbachev, the Pope, and General Jaruzelski, concerning the rise of democracy in Poland;
The moving drama of John Paul II's secret conduct of the developing relationship between the Vatican and Israel;
The detailed, hour-by-hour, inside story of Wojtyla's election as Pope as revealed by cardinals who were present at the conclave.
It is important to note, however, that Szulc's intimate portrait of the Pope goes far beyond and beneath the Holy Father's public persona. As he reports in his preface, when John Paul II and he first discussed his plans to write his biography, the Holy Father remarked that "a biography must be more than dates, facts, and quotations...." It must convey, the Pope stated in Polish: "the person's heart, soul, thoughts...." Szulc acted upon the Pope's advice in this regard by studying in depth Polish history and literature and immersing himself in the Pope's voluminous writings both before and since his election to the papacy.
Szulc's extensive study of the Pope's phenomenal output of articles and books leads him to conclude that "Karol Wojtyla simply had to be the most prolific writer in Poland."
In this connection it would be fair to add that no pope in history has ever written as much in his own name and in his own hand as John Paul II has done on an astonishingly wide variety of subjects. Indeed, one gets the impression that writing is and always has been a veritable passion with the man, and this despite the fact that throughout his entire adult life he has been burdened with administrative duties that would have made it impossible for a less energetic and less disciplined man to have found time for anything more than casual and routine writing. …