Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life With St. John Paul II

Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life With St. John Paul II and Centesimus annus
George Weigel's book, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life With St. John Paul II and St. John Paul II's encyclical, Centesimus annus released in 1991, on the hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum

As a blogger I do a lot of reading in order to be better informed and remain current on a variety of topics that I blog about. At times I put all that aside and take on some pleasure reading. Today's post is about such a reading, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II; a book written by George Weigel, a Catholic theologian, leading American public intellectual, and Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who I had the pleasure of meeting in October 2016, at the Catholic Civil Rights League's Annual General Meeting in Toronto.

Weigel's latest book completes the triptych on the life of St. John Paul II, that began with his two previous volumes, Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning.

The impetus for writing this "third panel" on the portrait of St. John Paul II's life stemmed from Weigel's discovery that during the promotion of The End and the Beginning (published in 2010) readers and audiences wanted to know more about St. John Paul II's life: stories that would, as Weigel put it, "...[M]ake him present again by rekindling memories or illuminating previously unknown aspects of his rich personality." (3)

Responding to that yearning to know St. John Paul II in a more personal way—which did not fit into the genre of serious biography—Weigel set out to "widen the anecdotal lens" and wrote the third volume of this seminal work that truly is a treasure trove of anecdotal information on the life of both men.

Weigel presented that anecdotal information within a timeline of his life: that began with Lent 1960; fast-forwarded to his university education; throughout his professional life; St. John Paul II's death and funeral; continued to the writing and promotion of The End and the Beginning; and concluded with a final reflection.

In 1982, having arrived at the Marian shrine of Fatima, on a pilgrimage of thanksgiving for surviving the assassination attempt made on his life a year before at St. Peter's Square, St. John Paul II stated, "In the designs of Providence, there are no mere coincidences." (5) That statement summed up St. John Paul II's view of God's ways with the world and with history. (5) 

Reflecting upon his own experience learning about St. John Paul II, Weigel understood that much of what happened over the course of his life was not just happenstance or coincidence, but part of God's providential plan for his life: preparation for becoming St. John Paul II's biographer. Weigel referred to that preparation as "bricks" that formed the "foundation" for his study of St. John Paul II. 

The first part of Weigel's reflection took him back to his childhood, detailed in the chapter, Lent in the Third Grade, where he uses the analogy of a seed planted in him that eventually flowered into a passion for Polish history and literature, and a determination to tell the story of St. John Paul II, who at that time was the forty-year-old auxiliary bishop of Kraków.

That seed during Lent 1960, was the prayer assignment given at the Cathedral School in downtown Baltimore, for each grade to pray for the conversion of a communist leader during the entire time of Lent. Grade three's assigned figure was Poland's Władysław Gomułka—the de facto leader of post-war Poland until 1948, and later between 1956-1970—who was a supporter for the persecution of the Catholic Church and intellectuals, and who together with his associates mistakenly considered Karol Józef Wojtyła to be an intellectual they could manipulate.

The first brick laid in the foundation of Weigel's life was between 1969-1973, during his seminary studies in philosophy at St. Mary's Seminary College in Baltimore. Although he did not pursue a vocation to the priesthood, the time at St. Mary's proved to be essential for Weigel's biographical studies in order to get inside the mind of "Karol Wojtyła the philosopher," who St. John Paul II himself stated, "...[C]ould only be understood from the inside." (93)

The foundation grew during his graduate studies at the University of Toronto, between 1973-1975, and continued into the early part of his career between 1975-1984; a time that Weigel referred to himself as an "apprentice wordsmith."

The "apprenticeship" included two years (1975-1977) as a junior faculty member of St. Thomas Seminary School of Theology in Kemore, Washington; and as Weigel noted, it was a crucial turning point in his life when he learned the invaluable lesson, "...[Y]ou really don't know what you think about something until you try to teach it, persuade others of it, or engage others in it." (17)

The apprenticeship moved from teaching at St. Thomas into the world of think tanks: the World Without War Council (WWWC) in Seattle. It was also a time in which Weigel was afforded the opportunity to further develop his writing skills and he wrote articles about several topics including religion and St. John Paul II.

Weigel's debut as a "public intellectual/theologian/columnist" had several effects. One of which was the exploration of St. John Paul II's grand strategy for the victory of freedom in Central and Eastern Europe, "...[T]he robust defense of human rights, anchored in religious freedom, as a nonviolent weapon that communism could not match." (23)

Think tanks did not offer Weigel the same financial security as teaching, but it did provide him with something even more valuable: freedom. It was with that freedom that Weigel was able to take on his first assignment in 1979: to write about St. John Paul II's first papal pilgrimage to the United States in October of that same year.

Weigel elaborated on that assignment in the chapter, Front Row Seat, where he wrote how the "nascent desire" to know St. John Paul II better was born from the few seconds when St. John Paul II passed by him, only a foot or two away, inside the United Nations General Assembly building, where the Pope delivered what Weigel described as a "stunning speech." That encounter would eventually lead Weigel into relationships and adventures he never thought possible as a "...[N]ewbie columnist on the fringes of the papal media tsunami in October 1979." (27)

On what was an "unforgettable morning," Weigel walked to the home of then Pastor Richard Neuhaus seeking his insight on the speech. It was the first conversation Weigel had about the proper interpretation of a St. John Paul II text, "...[T]he keys, he [Neuhaus] insisted, were the Pope's locating human rights at the center of any humane world politics, religious freedom at the center of human rights, and a biblically informed notion of human dignity as the foundation of the whole edifice." (25)

It was only a couple of months later in March of that same year that Weigel "unpacked" the key themes of Christian personalism in St. John Paul II's first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis.

Between 1984-1985, Weigel spent a year "in the castle"; a reference to his time at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (WWICS) in Washington, which at that time was located in the old Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall. During that year, Weigel experienced: true academic community; a fellowship that reverenced the truth; and was befriended by five men whom he credits as having "decisively" shaped his future thinking and work.

Following his sabbatical at the WWICS, Weigel spent the next four years (1985-1989) launching and leading the World Without War Council's sister organization, the James Madison Foundation, which involved him in enterprises that would shape his work on St. John Paul II. (33)

A photo of George Weigel, Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington
George Weigel. Photo: Ethics and
Public Policy Center/George Weigel
In 1989, Weigel became the second president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC); a position he held for seven years. The EPPC had as Weigel put it, "...[A] well-deserved reputation for serious public policy research that fit well within the neoconservative consensus." (38) He went on to further describe it as a place where colleagues shared his conviction that St. John Paul II was "...[T]he religious figure of consequence on the world stage." (38)

It was during this time that Weigel took one step closer to becoming St. John Paul II's biographer: writing about the pope's encyclical, Centesimus Annus. The experience taught him something very important about the pope: that St. John Paul II had "...[B]rilliantly scouted the terrain on which the battle for the twenty-first century would be fought in the West—a man I thought I would like to know better." (42).

Weigel had been writing about St. John Paul II steadily since 1979, and by 1991, he had become one of pope's "principal interpreters" in North America, which St. John Paul II, through his personal intelligence network, was well aware.

Being one of the pope's principal interpreters did not make Weigel's "stock" rise among those who considered Karol Wojtyła a "Conservative Pole with a premodern mind." Weigel had a different view of St. John Paul II, "...[I] had come to the settled view that he [St. John Paul II] was a thoroughly modern intellectual with a very different read on modernity—one that deserved serious attention. That judgement was amply confirmed when Centesimus Annus was published at the beginning of May 1991." (41) Weigel dedicated two full pages to this encyclical that included his description of St. John Paul II's brilliance:
...John Paul crafted an encyclical that brilliantly described the threefold free and virtuous society of the future as one composed of a democratic political community, a free economy, and a vibrant public moral culture. And, he insisted, the culture was the key to all the rest, because it took a certain kind of people, culturally tutored in certain virtues, to make the machinery of free politics and free markets work so that the result is genuine human flourishing. Truth, he argued, and especially the truth about the human person, had everything to do with living freedom well and building prosperous economies. And the central truth that the free societies of the future had to own was the truth about the human person, which we can know by both revelation and reason. (41)
In the chapter, Rookie Vaticanista, Weigel details how over the course of eight days in Rome in 1991, he met with several figures in the Roman Curia and Rome-based journalists. From those conversations, Weigel referred to one in particularly as especially important in shaping his perceptions of St. John Paul II's role in the fall of communism: the conversation with then-archbishop Jan Schotte; a man who, "...[I]ntuitively grasped John Paul II's culture-driven approach to historical change, in which the truth, spoken clearly and winsomely enough, has the power to forge cultural tools of resistance to oppression." (52)

Schotte revealed that the first thing St. John Paul II did upon assuming the office of the papacy was to ask for the archives on the Ostpolitik—the well-intentioned failed Eastern policy of Pope Paul VI that sought to appease communist countries with the hope that the Catholic Church would not be subjected to persecution. That review helped convince St. John Paul II to follow his instincts of being, "...[M]ore forthright and 'undiplomatic' in his defense of religious freedom and his unmistakable challenge to communism from the very beginning of his papacy." (52)

The conversation with Joaquín Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesman from 1984 to 2006—a Spanish layman and medical doctor who had practiced psychiatry before entering into the world of journalism—helped to further distinguish St. John Paul II's approach to communism from Pope Paul VI's, specifically with respect to the different readings of the Yalta accords. Navarro-Valls emphasized that Pope Paul VI saw the accords (which divided Europe at the end of WWII) as a political fact, whereas St. John Paul II completely rejected Yalta and all that it represented on, "...[E]thical, historical, and cultural grounds—which was why his [St. John Paul II] method turned out to be 'much more subversive' in undermining the Yalta system than an overtly political approach would have been." (54)

St. John Paul II on stage to celebrate Mass for Pentecost, Poland 1979
St. John Paul ll's 1979 Vigil Mass for Pentecost at Victory Square, Warsaw, Poland. Photo: YouTube/WYD2016 Blog 2 - A Pilgrim's Guide to Warsaw

Seeking to deepen his understanding of how St. John Paul II "triggered a revolution of conscience" in Poland, Weigel made his first trip to pope's homeland in 1991. During those twelve days he travelled to Warsaw, Kraków, Gdańsk, and Tarnów, where he inquired about the origins of the Revolution of 1989. Whether it was a government official, journalist, priest, house wife, academic or anyone else, they all responded with the same answer: St. John Paul II's epic June 1979 pilgrimage to Poland, the "Nine Days that changed the history of the twentieth century." (57)

From the many people Weigel met with I found his conversation with Polish priest, Father Kazimierz Jancarz particularly interesting, not only from what he shared, but due to the fact that his parish, the Church of St. Maximilian Kolbe, was in the Mistrzejowice nieghbourhood of Nowa Huta, where the battle to build a church was hardest fought in previous decades against the communists, who planned Nowa Huta to be a town without a Church and without God.

The great symbol in that struggle was the Ark Church in the Bienczyce neighbourhood of Nowa Huta where since 1959, St. John Paul II celebrated midnight Mass at an open, outdoor field until the Ark Church's completion and dedication on May 15, 1977.

Weigel wrote that Father Jancarz gave him a lesson in how hope, "...[W]as kept alive at the grassroots level in the 1980s, during and after martial law." (61) Elaborating on Father Jancarz's information, Weigel captured the spirit of Polish cultural resistance:
Under his leadership, the Kolbe parish in Nowa Huta became a piece of free Poland when the regime tried to stamp out Solidarity [A trade union that became legally recognized, independent, and self governing after the 1979 papal pilgrimage] and what it represented: free space for free associations of free people who could think freely about themselves and the future. An underground university was formed for the steelworkers, the professors coming from the Jagiellonian University and the Kraków Polytechnic; some four hundred workers 'graduated' after four semesters (including their 'proletarian' parish priest). 'Evenings of Polish culture'—political cabarets, theatrical performances, musical programs—replicated Karol Wojtyła's own experience in the cultural resistance during World War II: people in touch with their own culture can never be completely occupied, whether by a Nazi occupation force or by communist usurpers. (62)
When St. John Paul II had given the "green light" for Witness to Hope in December 1995, during a "dinner of consequence," Weigel decided that the best approach would be to postpone any writing for eighteen months, during which time he set out to meet with as many people as possible and read all that he could on the pope. It resulted in more than a thousand pages of interview notes and eight full-size drawers of research materials.

Much of Lessons in Hope detailed the research of those eighteen months: the many conversations and numerous interviews with members of the Roman Curia, and several other clergy at various levels of the Church hierarchy; members of religious Orders; and St. John Paul II's network of lay friends (young adults and married couples) that began forming around him in the late 40's, the group of people referred to as "Środowisko."

Those conversations provided insights into the rich interior life and personality of St. John Paul II and his papacy. Some stood out in my mind more than others.

The first of those individuals is Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (then-cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) whom Weigel describes as "unfailingly helpful" when he was preparing Witness to Hope, and to whom he dedicated an entire chapter entitled, The Indispensable Man. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI informed Weigel that St. John Paul II was a man with "an acute sense of the human dilemma in late modernity"; the problem of 'the human person,' which as he further explained was what "...[D]rove both Wojtyła's philosophical work and his pontificate." (112) 

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI shared how he had lunched regularly with St. John Paul II; working lunches that were "quasi-seminars," where St. John Paul II thought out his weekly audience addresses, hashed out major encyclicals, two responses to liberation theology, and the apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, on the Church's inability to admit women to the priesthood. (113)

A photo of St. John Paul II with then-cardinal Ratzinger at the Vatican
St. Pope John Paul II with Pope Emeritus
Benedict XVI (then-cardinal Ratzinger)
Weigel described the working relationship between St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI:
They were something of an odd couple: a Pole and a German of the same World War II generation; a philosopher and a theologian; a former actor and a man one couldn't imagine on stage; a thinker-sportsman-mystic who became a compelling public personality and a learned but shy scholar who was likely happiest when reading or playing the piano by himself. Yet they worked in harness for over twenty-three years, one succeeding the other as pope. And between them, they gave the Second Vatican Council what it lacked until October 16, 1978—a coherent, comprehensive, and authoritative interpretation that pointed the Church into the third millennium of evangelical mission, which was what John XXIII had hoped for in summoning Vatican II. (111)
Another individual that stood out in my mind is Sister Emilia Ehrlich, an Ursaline nun and the Pope's English tutor and personal librarian, who Weigel met in 1997, and to whom he also dedicated an entire chapter: Tutor, Translator, Librarian, Nun. 

Sister Emilia, whose background is both Polish and American, fluent in English, and held a divinity degree from the Pontifical Faculty of Theology, insisted that Weigel not mention her in his book because she was "just a private person helping the Pope" and didn't want to be considered a "second Pascalina"—a reference to Pope Pius XII's powerful housekeeper, Mother Pascalina Lehnert, who "...[W]as ejected from the Vatican the day Pius XII died and took refuge in the convent at the North American College, bringing the late pontiff's pet parakeets with her." (123) Sister Emilia had spoken of St. John Paul II in quite a remarkable way:
As for the man who was always being orphaned, she said that 'he was a faithful friend and once you were his friend, you were always his friend.' People loved him because 'he loved people,' and kept promises, said what he thought and didn't speak until he had something serious to say: something rare among intellectuals, she shrewdly observed. She also remarked on his exceptional ability to make people in vast crowds think he was addressing them personally. (124) 
Of the many Curial figures Weigel spoke with who taught him about St. John Paul II and the challenges he faced governing the Church, I thought it noteworthy to include some of the details from Weigel's conversation with Cardinal Francis Arinze from Nigeria. 

Weigel descried Cardinal Arinze as one of his favourite interlocutors and a man of "...[I]nsight and charm and a first-generation Christian who seemed overwhelmingly grateful for the gift of faith he had been given as a boy." (133)

Cardinal Arinze knew and worked with then Cardinal Wojtyła during the synods of 1969, 1971, and 1977, and he told Wiegel that upon hearing of St. John Paul II's election as pope, he immediately informed some Irish priests in Belfast with whom he was staying, "We're going to have a bit of clarity in the Church. Now, we are going to know where we stand, clearly, without being aggressive, but clear." (133)

There is one comment in particular from Cardinal Arinze that was striking and brought back memories of St. John Paul II's life and papacy, "...[T]he John Paul II Effect was to make 'a Catholic who is a serious Catholic happy that he is living at this time in history." (133)

Weigel wrote that Cardinal Arinze understood why St. John Paul II as a vocation magnet, "How can young people join a group of permanently confused people who don't know where they're going? The Holy Father is just the opposite. People who see him know that he is happy in his vocation. His general style has encouraged vocations, because young men see that he is happy." (133)

In the chapter, Wojtyła's Poland in Depth, Weigel details his trips to Warsaw, Kraków, and Lublin in April 1997; researching St. John Paul II's pre-papal life. During that time, he met with many people, both clergy and laity, including members of the Środowisko group.

A black and white photo of Fr. Karol Wojtyła with students in 1954
Fr. Karol Wojtyła with students in 1954. Photo: First Things/The Jeweller's Shop, John Paul II, and the Joy of Holiness

Saint John Paul II had insisted earlier that same year (January 1997) that Weigel would not be able to understand him unless he understood the people of Środowisko. So Weigel set out to learn what they could teach him about Fr. Wojtyła.

In addition to most of the individuals becoming professionals in various fields (some quite distinguished) Weigel was struck by, "...[T]heir stories, while displaying the personal touches that came from intimate friendships involving unique personalities, were completely coherent in the portrait they drew of Karol Wojtyła as priest, bishop, and friend." (157)

Among the many characteristics of St. John Paul II, they mentioned: his "permanent openness"; a man who mastered the art of listening; how Fr. Wojtyła insisted on the moral responsibility of each individual; that they talked about everything, but never once did Fr. Wojtyła impose a view; and that the spiritual direction he gave to each individual included what would become his signature phrase, "You must decide." (157) Weigel described how content the people of Środowisko felt with Fr. Wojtyła: 
The result was a zone of freedom in a world of greyness and conformity. In a communist environment that remained stifling even after the worst of the Stalinist repression, they 'felt completely free with him,' as Teresa Malecka put it. 'While he was among us we felt that everything was all right.' They also emphasized that all this—hiking, kayaking, skiing with young people and young couples, parties in their homes for name days and after the baptisms of their children—was unheard of among other Polish clergy. So was Wojtyła's custom of saying Mass on their summer vacations with an overturned kayak as an impoverished altar. (158)
Father Wojtyła had asked the Środowisko group to call him "Wujek," which in Polish means "Uncle." He did so as a matter of protecting himself and the group from the ubiquitous secret police; a time when it was illegal for organized Catholic youth groups to meet with priests. Fathert Wojtyła's rise in the Church hierarchy did not end that special relationship with Środowisko, as he assured them, "Don't worry, Wujek will remain Wujek." (158) 

Much of what Weigel wrote rekindled memories of my discovery of the life and papacy of St. John Paul II through the many references to the pope's writings. Perhaps what rekindled that discovery the most was Weigel's inclusion of St. John Paul II's Love and Responsibility and Theology of the Body.

It is in the chapter, Something Useful for the Universal Church, that Weigel wrote about Love and Responsibilitythe Kraków archdiocesan institute on marriage that Bishop Wojtyła created and whose works were first published in 1960, in a book of the same title—and how it was Fr. Wojtyła's pastoral response to the question of his young student friends, "How do we prepare a good marriage?" Love and Responsibility details the answer to this question, providing the fundamental understanding of what it means to be a "person," and the challenge of human sexuality.

It was in that same chapter that Weigel also wrote about Theology of the Bodythe 129 general audience addresses the pope delivered at St. Peters Square from September 1979-1984, in which St. John Paul II provided his vision of the human person based on scriptural references; and revealed the truth about what the human body means, the call to be a gift of self, and detailed God's plan for mankind.

Weigel also included in that same chapter, two other important writings: Saint John Paul II's Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (on the role of the Christian family in the modern world) and Evangelium Vitae, the encyclical on the value and inviolability of human life.

Ben-Hur and the Pope is the chapter where Weigel wrote about the film documentary, Witness to Hopeand how it came into being which had a special significance for me: it was my first in-depth look into the life and papacy of St. John Paul II. It aired on my local Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) station in the fall of 2001, and it immediately instilled in me a desire to know the pope better. From that day on my discovery of St. John Paul II began (and continues to this day) that without a doubt, led to my attendance at World Youth Day 2002, in Toronto.

As to World Youth Day 2002, Weigel included some of his memorable moments in the chapter, The Long Lent. That inclusion brought back several memories, one of which Weigel shared: the clearing of the dark skies and rain that day in North York, into into a bright, sunny one upon St. John Paul II's arrival.

Reading Lessons in Hope afforded me an opportunity to better understand the life and papacy of St. John Paul II in ways that I have never read before. I also gained a greater appreciation and respect for George Weigel and his achievements.

Among the many lessons that one can learn from reading Lessons in Hope, one that has stood out in my mind is that by cooperating with the Designs of Providence—and the many graces, gifts, and blessings that accompany them—God can accomplish great things through His chosen vessels. The lives of St. John Paul II and George Weigel are ample proof of that.

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