Lessons of Hope

by George Weigel, Basic Books, £25

George Weigel’s Witness to Hope was written before its subject was canonised, but that exhaustive biography vibrated with confidence that the day of universal recognition would be inevitable. Weigel has become something of a pontifical Boswell, and his third volume about John Paul II is like the last wing on a vivid triptych by Memling or Rubens. The first two books were analytical, while this one is a portrait more ruminative and personal, and not without humour. It may even be more valuable precisely for that. History is disserved by those who think that private asides and impressions are secondary to major dates and deeds.

Weigel’s classical theological formation and his own urbane humanism made him a good fit for understanding Karol Wojtyła, and it would seem that the Holy Father sensed the same, enjoying his company and table talk. Through that association, Weigel was able to perceive the pope’s sources and initiatives, beginning with his pastoral work in Poland.

Wojtyła’s Polishness was not something to be thrust aside when he became Universal Pastor, like some gnostic shedding of irrelevant skin. Poland was an icon of Christ in its heroic deeds and salvific suffering, far more than most nations. That land, with trembling borders but unflagging chivalry, was crucified over centuries, only to rise with valour when its people cried out in 1979: “We want God.” And Wojtyła was there to hear them.

Carl Jung spent considerable effort trying to explain a dimension he called “synchronicity”, commonly shrugged off as mere coincidence. For the Christian, that dimension is often Divine Providence at work, and it would be pedantic to think that Wojtyła’s early suffering and experience of socialised atheism were not part of a supernatural scheme to prepare him for the papacy. Weigel’s familiarity with Polish culture may be the most important theme in what he writes of hope.

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