George Weigel. The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy. Doubleday. 590 Pages. $32.50.
If it’s true that by age 50 we all get the faces we deserve, it is also true that no such grimly satisfying rule applies to biography. There and there alone does the hapless subject, living or dead, remain uniquely at the mercy of whoever chooses to tell his tale — and hence uniquely at the mercy of the biographer’s motivations, high and low.
Some such storytellers, for example, strive to elevate themselves by throwing great men and women down (a genre that Joyce Carol Oates has dubbed “pathography”). Others, such as those specializing in celebrity tell-alls, sort the dirty laundry of their subjects for more straightforward reasons: to pay their own rent. Then there are the closet narcissists who thrash out their own selves between the lines of the stories of others — as when melancholics are drawn to interpreting the life of Lincoln, say, or professional political enemies to rewriting the lives of their adversaries.
For all of these reasons, biography is one ethically dubious — albeit highly entertaining — literary business. So it is figuratively, if not literally, something of a miracle that the towering historical and spiritual figure of Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II, continues to have his legacy secured by that rarest of literary matches: the biographer he deserved.
One of the world’s leading Catholic intellectuals, George Weigel is also among America’s most learned and engaged public intellectuals, period. A senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and author of some sixteen books and seemingly innumerable articles, columns, blog posts, public addresses, and other contributions, he ranges with authority and conviction over an impressive variety of subjects: religion, just war, American foreign policy, American history, secularism in Europe, religion in Europe, Christian history, jihadism, communism, Mozart, architecture, higher education, Victorian biography, and baseball, to name a few.
In addition to that wide range of interests is the range of literary style to match. At 750 words, as his years of columns syndicated nationally by the Denver Catholic Register go to show, Weigel is wisecracking and droll, adroit at administering sarcasm and bon mots. (These columns are incidentally the most widely circulated in the U.S. Catholic Press.) At 750 pages, as in some of his longer treatments, he is the scholastic authority who knows no one else has done the homework, and who administers the remedial lesson in history or religion or whatever is before him with Teutonic thoroughness to detail. He is the sort of writer whose powers tend to be taken for granted by his admirers even as they are perhaps more fully, if reluctantly, appreciated by his adversaries — a hardy band that mainly includes inveterate Church-haters, political and religious radicals, and belligerently secularist pundits. “I don’t suffer fools gladly,” he remarked at a dinner recently. “In fact, lately I don’t suffer them at all.” Such could be the motto on the occasional stinging “clarification” issued by Weigel to his political and religious opponents.
It is all the more remarkable that an author possessed of such an irrepressible literary persona would be able to suborn his own self so completely in the act of writing another’s biography. Yet such is the case with Weigel’s masterful rendering to history of the life and times of the Polish pope. It is now just over ten years since his bestselling first volume, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, chronicled in just under 1,000 pages the story of Karol Wojtyla’s pre-papal life and the first 22 years of what would turn out to be a papacy of almost 27. Now a second volume, The End and the Beginning: The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, both completes the story and delivers something important and new — an irresistible Cold War story of drama and intrigue at the highest (and lowest) levels.
Based in part on just some of what the author calls the “vast archive” of information recently available from the infamous kgb, Stasi, and Polish secret police files, this volume sheds light on one of the most dramatic historical and political tales to issue from a century bursting with them: namely, “Karol Wojtyla’s forty-year struggle against communism — and communism’s forty-year effort to impede Wojtyla’s work and destroy his reputation.” It is a story for believers and nonbelievers alike, and one reminiscent of the absorbing fictions of John LeCarre, Charles McCarry, and other masters of the Cold War genre. The difference, of course — as The End and the Beginning goes to show — is that the 40-year battle between Wojtyla and the communists was not some idle literary imagining, but rather the realest show on earth.
At the center of this drama lay the fact that “Poland’s communist authorities, their masters in Moscow, and their allies throughout the Soviet bloc long regarded Karol Wojtyla as a mortal enemy — and, after his election as pope, as a moral threat to the communist position in central and eastern Europe, to the communist project throughout the Third World, and indeed to the very survival of communism itself.” Fittingly enough, the object of this four-decade war seems himself to have arisen straight from the pages of Cold War fiction. Wojtyla’s mother died when he was eight; his brother, a doctor, died when the boy was twelve; and young Karol was raised by his devout father, whom he greatly admired. Such a solitary beginning, as masters of spy fiction have shown repeatedly, is just the stuff of which world-class spies are made. But this particular nearly orphaned boy — steeped in Polish Catholic religiosity, and obviously in possession from a young age of a world-class intellect — was to become a variant on the theme that secular spy fiction-writers have scarcely imagined: a spy for God instead.
By the time Wojtyla was nineteen, in 1939, the Red Army had invaded Poland and the country had been divided between the totalitarian powers of Germany and the Soviet Union. That year, according to Weigel, the future pope began his underground and resistance activities. Three years later he began study for the priesthood in a clandestine seminary program that was itself under surveillance by the occupying Gestapo. The first appearance of his name in their files occurs three years after that. In the course of the following ten years, Wojtyla would go on to become ordained, and to continue his academic work in various places including Lublin. From then on, his appearance in the police files grows apace.
As of the future pope’s appointment to archbishop, by Pope Paul VI in December 1963, the files of the sb (Polish Security Service) “were full of warning flags about Wojtyla’s recent activities,” including his saving of a seminary in Krakow from a planned communist takeover, his continuing involvement with a theater that the communists considered suspect (the young Wojtyla wrote plays and poetry, among much else), his sermons praising rebels of earlier eras, and — a continuing and most indicative sore spot — his Christmas midnight Masses in the particular symbolic site of Nowa Huta, designed and overseen by the authorities as a communist worker’s paradise. In another gesture of ingenious defiance, Wojtyla would ultimately also see to it after many setbacks that a church of note was built on that very ideologically strategic spot.
Intelligence reports to kgb headquarters, writes Weigel, suggest that between 1973 and 1974, Polish prosecutors three times considered arresting Wojtyla and charging him with sedition. Each time they opted instead for greater dedication in reining in his associates (including beating one particular priest). From stalking Wojtyla’s kayaking trips to persecuting or trying to compromise his closest associates, the Polish communists, despite bungling matters here and there, understood what the Soviet and East German communists would later. As one summarized in one Polish report, “Despite his seemingly conciliatory and flexible nature, Wojtyla is a very dangerous ideological opponent.”
This brings us to an important and often overlooked historical point. In the matter of knowing their enemies, as opposed to most others, the communists were generally right — and this is nowhere more obvious than in the case of John Paul II. While most Western intellectuals looked on the beginnings of Wojtyla’s papacy with bemusement, if indeed with any interest at all, communist kingpins from Moscow to Krakow to East Berlin saw something else: a mortal threat to the regimes they were defending and to the profound lies about human beings on which those regimes were built. By no coincidence Alexander Solzhenitsyn, by then in exile in Vermont, was almost alone in the West in grasping immediately the shattering historical significance of Wojtyla’s election. Upon hearing of it, he “threw out his arms,” Weigel reports from an exclusive family interview, and exclaimed, “It’s a miracle! It’s the first positive event since World War I, and it’s going to change the face of the world!”
Why did the exiled reclusive Russian genius grasp what so many Western educated minds did not? Because what secular sophisticates in the free West were dismissing as mere “folk piety” — the pilgrimages and Masses and other manifestations of the deep faith into which Wojtyla and his fellow Poles were born — was something else as well: religious practices that “threatened to underscore,” as Weigel puts it, “from city to town to village to farm, that real authority in Poland lay elsewhere than in the Polish Communist Party.”
And resist communism through their religion the Poles surely did, one pilgrimage and feast day and power struggle at a time. Take as emblematic the episode of the Black Madonna, a treasured national icon that the dauntless Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, another Polish hero, attempted to send on a pilgrimage throughout the country. Eventually forbidden to do so by the authorities, who obviously feared its power as a rallying point, Wyszynski did something else: He sent the icon’s frame on pilgrimage instead. Such brilliant yet constructive mischief in the face of communist oppression is the stuff of which Polish history in that era was made.
There are also walk-on parts aplenty in Weigel’s story for the noncourageous as well — and the mendacious, and the overly ambitious, and those on the communist tattletale payroll. By 1967, he reports, local clergy and laity in Poland included some 270 active informants. What was true of the Polish Church — that the communists attempted to riddle it with spies — was true at the global level as well. In what will come to many readers as one of the most shocking reports in the book, Weigel details how Vatican II itself was similarly infiltrated by a motley band of compromised clergy, hopeful reformist dupes, spies hiding beneath the banner of Polish radio, and more.
Against this backdrop of global ideological warfare, extraordinary faith and courage, and extraordinary perfidy and treachery at the same time, the struggle for and against communist domination played out. On one side stood a world power fabled for having no legions at all, as Stalin once famously sneered; on the other, another world power fabled for having nothing but. Then, in 1978, came the Polish pope. Playwright, actor, poet, philosopher, intellectual; sportsman, linguist, diplomat; a hardball ideological player outside the Catholic world even as he was revered for his pastoral humility within it: One might almost say that if Karol Wojtyla hadn’t been born, history herself would have had to invent him, so perfectly were his outsized gifts and faith a match for the outsized times.
Among various summaries of his activities as pontiff, Weigel reports that this pope went on pilgrimages to 129 different countries, travelling a total of some 750,000 miles; visited 1,022 cities outside Rome and delivered 3,288 prepared addresses; held 1,164 general audiences, attended by 17,665,800 people from around the world, as well as some 1,600 meetings with heads of state, heads of government, and other political figures. There is also his intellectual legacy within the Church itself via a prodigious outpouring of encyclicals, apostolic letters, catacheses, and other documents — including even an international bestseller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994), a papal first. Somehow, in between the Cold War, the Masses, the world leaders, and the rest, Weigel summarizes, John Paul II also created “a body of papal teaching with which the Catholic Church — and indeed the entire world of human culture — would be grappling for centuries.”
Even his dying and death took place on the world stage, with the image of the crippled, nearly immobile Pope leaning on a crucifix for support unforgettably emblazoned on the minds of many, many millions. As that purposefully public dying also went to show, Wojtyla was above all else a Catholic priest. This was true whether his pastoral setting were the woods outside of Krakow, where as a young man he took students on camping trips and used his kayak as an altar; or inside the overpowering St. Peter’s Basilica, where his words echoed beneath Bernini’s breathtaking baldicchino; or for that matter via the open-air Masses said during his papacy, among the largest gatherings of human beings in the history of the world. Wherever he was, John Paul II’s Christian message remained the same. All that changed were the numbers of people hearing it.
And what about the “real” Karol Wojtyla, as lesser writers telling his life story might have promised? “The interior lives of great men,” Weigel observes, “are often cloaked in mystery,” and far from being an exception, it is his biographer’s belief that John Paul II proves the rule here. In the end, he cites as Wojtyla’s indispensible inner core the Catholic understanding of metanoia, or complete turning to God and losing of self. The paradox of John Paul II’s life, concludes Weigel, is that “all this emptying of self leads to the richest imaginable human experience: a life unembittered by irony or stultified by boredom, a life of both serenity and adventure.”
Weigel’s biography, in sum, is certainly the most authoritative the world is likely to get of one of the great figures of recent history. That it is a ripping good read as well enhances the book’s achievement; seldom have so many pages of footnotes and index run quite so trippingly off the biographical tongue. None of which is to say that Weigel and his great subject saw eye to eye on everything; plainly they did not. To cite just one especially significant example, it is telling that the biographer, among the most forceful public advocates in America and elsewhere of the war in Iraq, nevertheless manages a compelling description of the Vatican’s different stance; and Weigel is similarly judicious concerning other matters where those who know his other work will recognize political daylight between him and the Vatican.
Neither does he stint on calling into question some of his subject’s prudential (as opposed to doctrinal) judgments. Emphasizing that the book is not hagiography, he examines in a closing session both the papal legacy and several of what he himself considers to have been “prudential errors.” John Paul appointed bishops that he should not have appointed, his biographer states. He certainly “could be deceived,” as the notably catastrophic case of Marcial Maciel — the Mexican-born priest founder of the Legionaries of Christ against whom a library of corruption and abuse charges have been assembled — has especially gone to show.
Even so, the particular corruptions lately exposed in certain Church ranks only deepen the mystery of the spiritual reach of that unimpeached leader, John Paul II. As Weigel summarizes part of the mystery:
All of which brings us to a final point especially worth pondering right now — in a moment when so many unthinking people ignorant of history lob cheap charges about the supposed “toxicity” of Christianity into the public square, and so many others who have been born after the Cold War have only the barest understanding of the moral and human wreckage of collectivism itself.
There was indeed much that the communists didn’t understand — including that men like the pope and Alexander Solzhenitsyn were more right than wrong about what really makes human beings tick. Nonetheless, the masters in Moscow and Krakow and East Berlin and other tragic wastelands of modern history did get a few pretty big things right. They knew, or at any rate were forced to learn, that an otherworldly pauper in a Roman collar could do more to bring them down than any worldly prince seeking business as usual. They knew that Christian religious belief and practice were on a permanent collision course with totalitarianism, which is why they persecuted it everywhere they could. They understood, in short, that the chief enemies of the state were those who did not believe the state had the authority to call the ultimate moral and political shots.
It is a remarkable and enduring and deplorable irony that over twenty years after the end of the Cold War itself, many Western intellectuals and pundits and other designated authorities still do not understand any of these things. George Weigel’s biography of the pope whose every move put the lie to all that is far and away the best place for them to start their remedial reading. For the rest of the public, it is a welcome gift to history.