The Greatest of Men | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | November 18, 2010The Greatest of Men | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | November 18, 2010


My friends, William and Anne Burleigh, from Kentucky, were in town visiting their daughter, Sister Anne Catherine, O.P., the principal of Mt de Sales Academy in Maryland. Bill is also Chairman of the Board of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where George Weigel hangs his hat when he is not everywhere else in the world. They brought me a copy of Weigel's new biography of John Paul II, The End and the Beginning—the Omega and the Alpha.

By chance, I had just finished a novel of William Saroyan, The Human Comedy, the last chapter of which is also entitled "The End and the Beginning," and for somewhat the same reasons, namely, what is our life all about? And who will tell us what it is? More than perhaps any man in our history, John Paul II told us—you are an unrepeatable person made in the image of God destined for eternal life. And when we did not understand or want to understand, he showed us.

It so happens that I ended up in the hospital for a few days with asthma, which I think the Lord sent to me so that I would read Weigel's new book. It is a spectacular book. Here, I will not write a "review" but, as I did in the case of two of Msgr. Sokolowski's books [here and here], the David Walsh and the Tracey Rowland books [here and here], I will simply write an appreciation of Weigel's work.

First of all, the book is not about Weigel. It is about John Paul II, a man that Weigel has known, admired, and written about. His earlier massive biography, Witness to Hope, remains the standard text on the life of Karol Wojtyla and is certainly worth rereading in the light of this second volume.

The present book, as its title indicates, is able to complete what could not have been accomplished when Witness to Hope was written in 1999. Essentially, the book deals with what we now know of the earlier life of Karl Wojtyla, especially in the light of the documents that have appeared from the East German, Bulgarian, Polish, Czech, and Russian secret police. It deals with their massive efforts to undermine and follow him, to infiltrate even the Vatican, and to counter his words and actions. To their credit, from early on these fumes of iniquity understood better than most of us the power of this man. His magnetism, as Weigel points out often, they recognized but could not understand, a force of grace and personality, yes, charm and insight and energy, that the world has seldom, if ever, seen.

As I read the book, I was either laughing, weeping, enjoying, being horrified, being educated, even praying. When I finished this book, I said to myself, "We are not worthy of such a man," which is no doubt why God sent him from "a far country" to be our pope for over twenty five years. During John Paul II's time, I recall often the fascination of watching him. What a face, what a presence! The media must have both loved and hated him. He went right over their heads and talked to everyone as if no one else was around. I have a photo someplace of a son of friends at an audience with John Paul. The boy is about ten or so, the pope is looking right at him as if he were the only person in the world, which for that moment he was.
As Weigel pointed out, everyone had that immediacy impression of the pope's gaze, both the mighty and the small, kings, philosophers, and workers, mothers and their children. The pope often spoke of the "face" of Christ, of the face as a philosophical insight. Weigel is amused that Wojtyla may be the only man in the world who read for pleasure the French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, whose philosophy is based on the human face.

Because Wojtyla was a man, women could be women around him. I was especially struck by Weigel's description of the pope's attention to listening to what someone said and his careful, direct response. Wojtyla seems to have been a man alive almost every moment in his life, alive to what was there before him, all the while seeing beyond into the world and its eternity, a place to whence he too, even as pope, was directing himself in God's hands.


The last half of the book is devoted to the final years of John Paul II's life, his declining years, if they can be called that—they can't—and his death. Weigel ends the book with a long, reflective section on the meaning of this man's life, an assessment of his enormous work. This is a particularly valuable part of the book. Weigel takes up every criticism leveled at John Paul II from within and outside the Church. He carefully presents the problem and judges the validity.

Weigel does not present John Paul II as never having made any bad calls or misunderstandings of men or issues. But in almost every case, John Paul II's problem had to do with his virtues, his good will, and perception. But he could act when he had to—and he did. The saddest part of the book for me is Weigel's "list" of those groups in the Church who chose not to listen to him, usually intellectuals and clerical dons. The irony is, of course, that, on natural powers alone, Wojtyla was smarter than any of them. The same is true of his successor, as I suspect John Paul II intended it to be.

John Paul II, as Weigel points out, was seen by more human beings than any other man in history. He visited more parishes in Rome and Italy than any previous Italian pope ever thought of. Most of the countries in the world saw him first hand. He was the pope of youth and challenged every one of them to follow Christ, not anything less. He knew and loved the Byzantine side of the Church. One grieves for the soul of the Russian Church's, itself so much compromised during the communist era, unwillingness to see his greatness. John Paul II's range of interest was amazing. He loved people. He had good friends and kept them to the end.

Poland was in his blood. Indeed, the pope considered that there was something about this Polish background that guided the Holy Spirit to select him. He did not think, on God's side, that there are really any accidents in our lives. We are in God's hands as He awaits our decisions, which, as they must be, are free.

That John Paul II was one of the major causes for the fall of Communism is simply a fact. Without him, the walls would probably still be there and the Vatican Ostpolitik still in place. With Ronald Regan, the Pope saw that things could change, but they had to change within the souls of men. Marxism never understood this. The Polish bishop did.

We look at the intellectual side of John Paul II, his own philosophical writings, his encyclicals, especially Fides et Ratio, exhortations, letters, and his own books. We realize that, with Benedict XVI, whom, precisely because he was so brilliant, John Paul wisely chose to assist him in the papacy in our time, we have two of the most remarkable minds among us. It is perhaps embarrassing to contemporaries, but, as Weigel mentions, the chief defender of reason in the modern world today happens to be the papacy (not Catholic universities who never really caught on, most of them).

Wojtyla must have been a master teacher. He seems always to have sought to learn more, to learn what someone had to tell him. And he remembered. The last book I read of his with a class was Memory and Identity. This remarkable book contains the best discussion of evil and its limits that there is. Evil, in the end, is limited by the scope of the divine mercy. It is not and cannot be absolute. I suspect when students walked out of Wojtyla's class or lectures, their souls, as well as they minds, were touched.


Weigel's book has before each section a chronology of what is going on in the pope's life during the period of the following discussion. This is most useful. At the end of the book, Weigel has a gracious list of those whom he consulted or talked to in the book's preparation. He did his homework. But it must have been a thrill to reflect back step by step on the life of this extraordinary pope, who died before our eyes.

One of the wondrous things of our time is the way John Paul II in the end carried on in his illnesses and disabilities. Folks kept saying he should resign. He had other plans. He would do what practically no man in modern times has showed us better, how to die, and why. Who else could have done this?

Weigel poignantly captures this final drama of John Paul II. He notes that at his funeral, the whole world was there. Why? Because here was the best of our kind. We all knew it even if we would not admit it. He did not invent his own world. He was, and this is what made him, as Weigel says, a "disciple." Someone else had already better explained what our lives were about. All we needed to do was pay attention, think, and follow.

From the very beginning, Wojtyla told us that it is only Christ who reveals ourselves to ourselves. I have always loved that way of putting it. Lord knows, we do not reveal ourselves to ourselves. This "Christ revealing us to ourselves" was already seen in Redemptor Hominis, his first encyclical. I remember writing an article about it at the time in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. I simply entitled it, "The Amazement of God," as if to say, which is true, that God could be amazed by what He did in creating and redeeming us.

I like to think that the word "amazement" also captures the life of Karol Wojtyla. Whether it be suffering, blessing, persecution, intelligence, children, skiing, chatting, eating desserts he liked, figuring out the Vatican bureaucracy, meeting bishops, youth, diplomats, politicians, philosophers, scientists, sundry religious leaders, the Pope always was amazed at it all. But that did not mean he just stood there. He also acted. His actions are described very well in this book.

I will conclude with a favorite story that Weigel told. During the consistory in which George Pell of Sydney was elevated to the cardinalate, there were some thirty or so other candidates among whom was an African bishop who was, like Pell, very tall, though Pell, an ex-footballer, may have been "heftier."

When Pell's turn came to receive his red hat, the pope at that time was very weak. So the men knelt and the pope gave them the hat which they donned themselves. John Paul II quipped to Pell, "Ah, the greatest of the candidates." To which Pell replied to the Pope, "No, Holy Father, not the greatest, just the largest." How incredible is our language to make such distinctions! Pell knew who was the greatest. After reading Weigel's remarkable book, we all do.

Related Ignatius Insight Excerpts and Essays:

John Paul the Great | William Oddie
Pope John Paul II and the Christ-centered Anthropology of Gaudium et Spes | Douglas Bushman
The Dignity of the Human Person: Pope John Paul II's Teaching on Divinization in the Trinitarian Encyclicals | Carl E. Olson
Saint John Paul II?
On the Papacy, John Paul II, and the Nature of the Church | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Theologians, Authors Reflect on Pope John Paul II | Various Authors
On the Death of Pope John Paul II | Michael O'Brien
Was Pope John Paul II Anti-Woman? | Mary Beth Bonacci
JPII, Why Did We Love You? | Mary Beth Bonacci

Pope John Paul II-related Resources from Ignatius Press:

Love and Responsibility | Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II)
The Jeweler's Shop | Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II)
The Legacy of John Paul II: Images and Memories | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
Mary: God's Yes to Man (Encyclical Letter: Redemptoris Mater) | Pope John Paul II
John Paul the Great | Edited by Ian Ker
Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II | George Weigel
Miracles of John Paul II | Pawel Zuchniewicz
Covenant of Love: Pope John Paul II on Sexuality, Marriage, and Family in the Modern World | Fr. Richard Hogan and Fr. John LeVoir
Witness to Hope: The Life of Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II | (DVD)

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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