Work of Faith; The Polish bishop who shook up the papacy is best understood as a defender of human dignity and a champion of national identity, says his biographer; George Weigel of Bethesda


It is June 1983, time of the second papal pilgrimage to Poland. Tensions between the government and the Solidarity labor union are at their height. At a table in the Krakow archbishop's residence, a group of cardinals and Vatican officials are watching their soup get cold as they wait for a tardy Pope John Paul II.

Finally, the pontiff breezes in, takes a few spoonfuls of soup, then hears a group of students calling to him from outside.

"The pope gets up, goes to the window and starts this back-and-forth thing with these kids, who are, among other things, roaring defiance against martial law," says George Weigel, Roman Catholic theologian and papal biographer.

Finally, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the august Vatican secretary of state and master diplomat, has heard enough. He erupts in anger at what he considers his superior's recklessness.

"What does he want?" Casaroli asks. "Does he want bloodshed? Does he want war? Every day I have to explain to the authorities that there is nothing to this."

The incident, recounted in Weigel's new book, "Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II," is emblematic of the cultural shift a Polish cleric named Karol Wojtyla brought to the Vatican when he was elected Pope John Paul II in October 1978. In the biography, due out today, Weigel chronicles the history of his papacy and the life that formed the man.

Weigel, a Baltimore native and Bethesda resident, wrote the 864-page biography with the blessing of John Paul, although he says he retained editorial independence. An admitted admirer of his subject, he met with the pope 10 times for conversations -- always over meals, at John Paul's insistence -- and interviewed friends from Wojtyla's native Poland as well as dozens of Vatican officials and others who would lend insight into a papacy that helped to dismantle the Soviet empire.

Though not the first biography of John Paul, it is likely the most comprehensive, with an extensive look at the pope's childhood and his early career as a prelate in Poland. Weigel, a senior fellow of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, also traces John Paul's philosophical and theological formation, arguing that this provides the best tool for understanding the pope's seemingly contradictory positions: at once progressive on some issues, but an authoritarian conservative on others.

John Paul II may be the most visible pope in history, Weigel says, but adds in his prologue: "This most visible of men may also be the least understood major figure of the twentieth century."

A project begins

Weigel has been writing about John Paul almost since he became pope more than 20 years ago. Over the years, he has visited him at the Vatican many times.

It was in May 1995 that Weigel first began discussing a biography of John Paul with his press spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls. That December in Rome, the pope invited him to a dinner of "roast chicken and a good local wine" and "indicated very vigorously that he thought it would be a good idea if I took this on," Weigel says.

Four years later, Weigel's book describes a pope who shook things up from the day he was elected. "It didn't take him five minutes" in the office to begin putting his distinctive stamp on it," he says.

He says John Paul was undaunted by his new and demanding role.

"If the Holy Spirit saw fit to call the bishop [of Krakow] to be the Bishop of Rome, that must have meant there was something in that experience that was of use to the whole church," Weigel quotes the pope as saying.

Weigel calls the effect of John Paul's election on a Vatican bureaucracy accustomed to managing popes a "terremoto" -- Italian for earthquake. Instead of staying in Rome issuing treatises and minding the protocols of the papacy, John Paul immediately began traveling the globe, challenging authoritarian regimes, speaking out against human rights abuses and greeting multitudes like a rock star.

"I think there was a profound sense of shock at two things. One was the breaking of the Italian dynasty" with the election of a Polish pope, Weigel says. "And the other was that this guy intended to conduct a very different kind of papacy."

That difference is the thread Weigel finds running through John Paul's pontificate and what he believes is the key to understanding his moral stances, which sometimes appear to be contradictory: John Paul is a committed Christian disciple and a pastor who believes above all in the dignity of the human person.

"You can't understand Einstein without the physics," Weigel says, "and you can't understand the pope unless you understand his thought, his action, his style of leadership, whether he is dealing with his fellow bishops or whether he is dealing with world statesmen, all emerges out of his Christian conviction and his vocation as a pastor.

"In his mind the office of the Bishop of Rome is essentially a pastoral and evangelical office," Weigel says. "The pope is not the CEO of Roman Catholic Church Inc."

The differing styles and different conceptions of how the Vatican should operate are at the heart of John Paul's conflicts with Casaroli, his secretary of state. But their conflict, Weigel argues, evolved into a successful partnership.

"They had very different views of how the church should relate to totalitarian regimes," Weigel said. "What was worked out ... is they deployed a kind of good cop, bad cop routine. ... Casaroli could go ahead and do his quiet diplomacy while the pope was pounding on these guys publicly."

Apparent dichotomy

It is a common consensus among the media's pope watchers that John Paul is "liberal" on social issues (his championing of the poor, his critique of unbridled capitalism) and "conservative" on some church teachings (upholding the ban on abortion and contraception, continuing to oppose the ordination of women).

That, Weigel says, is a mis-characterization that begins by using political terms to describe a religious figure.

"You can't think about this as a problem of authoritarianism vs. a more liberal approach," Weigel says. "The pope is not an authoritarian. An authoritarian is someone who decides that X is X because I say it's X. The pope is the custodian of an authoritative tradition. He is the servant of that tradition. He is not the master of it. It runs him, he doesn't run it."

Similarly, Weigel says he doesn't buy the interpretation that since the fall of Communism, John Paul has become an "angry old man" who now denounces the abuses of hard-fought freedoms in the former Soviet bloc, as well as materialistic excesses in the West.

"In fact, I think if people look at these things seriously, the critique he has made of the way that democracy sometimes functions is based on exactly the same set of moral reference points that he deployed to critique the way Communist states function: The dignity of the human person is not sufficiently acknowledged, that a kind of utilitarianism takes over, and that you get a cheapening and coarsening of life as a result."

Another key to understanding John Paul's papacy, Weigel says, is that the pope believes the driving force behind human history is not economics or political intrigue, but a people's culture. John Paul recognized this in Poland, Weigel says: His evocation of Polish heroes and its proud history was the dangerous creative force he unleashed in support of Solidarity.

John Paul employed the same tactics during his trip to Cuba in January 1998.

"It finally came clear to me under this blazing hot sun in Santiago de Cuba," he says. "I said to myself, 'He's giving these people back their history. He's giving them back their authentic culture.'

"And then I said, 'That's exactly what was going on in Poland, in June '79.' He was saying to these people: 'Here's who you are.' And that recovery of national identity is dynamite, it's absolute dynamite."

'A natural man'

In their interviews and in numerous other informal contacts, Weigel says he found John Paul to be "a natural man."

"He's very easy to talk with," Weigel says. "He has a very puckish, dry sense of humor. He likes to kid, and he likes to be kidded. There's no pretense about him at all."

And yet, Weigel says, he retains an air of formality.

"There's a kind of courtliness about him, although it's so natural and, in a sense, informal that you have to think about it a minute to recognize that it in fact is a kind of old world courtliness," Weigel says. "He always refers to me as 'Professor Weigel.' He will not call me 'George.' "

As the papacy of the man he has so closely studied nears its inevitable conclusion, Weigel's book lists his numerous achievements, including his role in the collapse of Communism, the insertion of ecumenism into the heart of Catholicism, new dialogue with Judaism and the power of his personal inspiration.

But ultimately, Weigel says, John Paul's greatest contribution is the message "that the real road to human fulfillment lies through self-giving, not self-assertion.

"Now that," he says, "is a real challenge to our culture."

- The Catholic Review, the weekly newspaper of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, will present a lecture and book signing by George Weigel at 7: 30 p.m. Monday at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, 5300 N. Charles St.

Pub Date: 10/05/99

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad