Historian Weigel Is Witness for John Paul II

By Rust, Michael | Insight on the News, November 15, 1999 | Go to article overview

Historian Weigel Is Witness for John Paul II


Rust, Michael, Insight on the News


Devout Catholic and scholar George Weigel received the Vatican's blessing to write a massive biography to help the public understand the man, the myth and the message.

George Weigel's recently published Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II weighs in at a mammoth 992 pages and is being published in English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Polish and Slovenian editions, with other translations under negotiation. An American Roman Catholic scholar and the former president of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, Weigel already had written extensively about the pontiff before he was approached four years ago to assume the biographer's mantle. Weigel had access to an array of unreleased internal Vatican documents, conducted interviews with 43 Vatican officials in addition to associates of Karol Wojtyla around the globe and had 10 interviews and 20 hours of dinner-table conversation with the pope himself.

The pope, says onetime seminarian Weigel, has transformed both the role of the papacy and Catholic bishops. "The challenge that John Paul II poses to bishops throughout the world," he says, "is to think of their office in evangelical and pastoral, rather than managerial, terms."

Insight: You say Pope John Paul II may be the "least understood" man of his time. How have Americans misunderstood the man and his message?

George Weigel: John Paul II may be the least-understood great figure of the 20th century because the attempt to force his thought and action into the conventional liberal/conservative categories inevitably ends up distorting his message. It also turns this very well-integrated personality -- perhaps the most consistent man I have ever met -- into a kind of schizophrenic: the social liberal and doctrinal conservative.

In Witness to Hope, I argue that John Paul can only be understood as a Christian radical, a profoundly convinced Christian disciple whose thoughts, decisions and actions all reflect his intense faith and his conviction that faith is not one option in a supermarket of spiritualities but the great truth of the world and of history.

Insight: What kind of cooperation did you receive from the Vatican while researching and writing Witness to Hope?

GW: In December of 1995, the pope vigorously encouraged me to take on this project; he later repeated that encouragement in a personal letter. In March 1996 we discussed ground rules, and he readily agreed to what I asked for: unprecedented access to him, to his oldest friends and closest associates and to classified materials I thought necessary for clarifying the historical record, but absolutely no vetting or editorial review by anyone in the Vatican, including the pope. No one in the Vatican, John Paul II included, saw the book until it was finished and in print.

Many officials of the Vatican were entirely cooperative. My conversations with them are reported throughout Witness to Hope and give the reader a rare look at some previously untold stories: the Sandinista attempt to manipulate the pope's visit to Nicaragua in 1983; the back-channel negotiation that made possible diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel; the way encyclicals and other major Catholic teaching documents are conceived and written. The cooperation of senior Vatican officials also made it possible for Witness to Hope to include previously classified correspondence between the pope and Leonid Brezhnev, Deng Xiaoping and Mikhail Gorbachev. Other Vatican officials were reluctantly cooperative. Only two declined to speak with me.

Insight: What will be the enduring legacy of this pope's pontificate?

GW: I think there are at least eight enduring achievements. John Paul renovated the papacy -- what Catholics call the Office of Peter -- for the 21st century by returning that office to its New Testament roots: Peter as the church's first evangelist, first witness, first pastor. …

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