The witness to a witness

Lessons in Hope is George Weigel’s most recent book about Saint John Paul II. The book completes the trilogy consisting of Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning. Collectively, the three books offer an authoritative and definite account of Karol Wojtyła’s remarkable life, from his time in Wadowice to the end of his pontificate in 2005. Weigel does a superb job of engaging with different dimensions of Wojtyła’s life from his personal encounters with others through his political beliefs, to his not always easily accessible theological writings.
Lessons in Hope is somewhat different from the other two books in that it focuses on anecdotes that accompanied the author when writing the Witness to Hope. In many ways the last book is about the first one. Lessons in Hope is thus not a biography, but a collection of stories. The author recalls many events through which we learn more about John Paul’s inner circle, and perhaps most importantly the type of herculean effort that went into making Witness to Hope. Social scientists will undoubtedly appreciate the unbelievable amount of research undertaken by Weigel. It is true that he enjoyed John Paul’s official “blessing” and therefore received access to documents and personalities not available to other biographers. But that did not mean however that Weigel always got what he wanted. The ever sluggish and skeptical Vatican Curia demonstrated its power on more than one occasion.
The book is full of delicious details. The Pope, for example, was very strategic in his political dealings, especially with the communist regime in Poland and knew the game they were playing very well. When Wojtyła was elected to be the next pope:

Poland’s communist leaders knew that their state-run television could not ignore the inaugural public Mass of the first Polish pope, so they allotted four hours for coverage of the events of October 22, 1978. The ceremony would normally take two and a half hours, which would give communist spin doctors ninety minutes to explain that all of this meant nothing. John Paul called in the papal masters of ceremonies and told them to devise an inaugural Mass program that would last exactly four hours, thus outwitting the communist spinmeisters at their own game (52).
Other stories illustrate how difficult social research can be even for Weigel, who had Pope’s permission to obtain any information he deemed necessary for the project. Here is how the author describes his meeting with Cardinal Sodano, then the papal secretary of the state:

[After a prob from Dziwisz, Sodano] agreed to speak with me over lunch on December 13, 1996, in his apartment on the second loggia of the Apostolic Palace – much fancier digs than the papal apartment a floor above. It was Sodano who had said that the stranieri, the foreigners, don’t really fit in well “here,” and that was the approach he took with me, greeting me de haut en bas, as if he were a Nobel laureate virologist and I was a mildly interesting new pathogen. The conversation was, in a word, a monologue: I think I got five sentences in over the course of ninety minutes (145-6).
It is true that the Church has been around for a very long time, but it does not follow that all of its bureaucratic activities are well coordinated and organized. Apparently archives in the Vatican are full of treasures that just happen to be not very well itemized. Thus after some serious maneuvering, Weigel was able to gain access to a letter from Brezhnev to John Paul. Here is how he describes what follows:

In examining the Brezhnev letter, the first thing I noticed was a light pencil notation at the top right-hand corner of the cream-colored official papal stationery: “12/80.” I asked what it was. Tauran replied that it was the filing code – December 1980. I was flabbergasted and asked, “Do you mean that everything is simply filed by date and month, no matter what it is?” “Yes,” he replied; and that was why it had taken him hours to dig out the letters in question, as they were in boxes with everything else saved from that particular month. At this point I began to understand why the Vatican didn’t let researchers dig into the archives of a pontificate until they had been properly culled, organized, and catalogued: something like the Brezhnev letter might be cheek by jowl with a highly delicate matter of conscience that had been referred to the Pope that same month (148-9).
No book is ever complete and the same, I suspect, can be said about a trilogy. But there is a huge gap in Weigel’s books. In what amounts to approximately 2000 pages of names, places, events, I do not think he even once mentions Wanda Półtawska. Półtawska was a long time friend of John Paul and they collaborated closely. They first met in Kraków when Wojtyła was still a young priest. Półtawska, a psychiatrist by training, survived a concentration camp and until today, despite her being 96 this year, continues to lecture about John Paul II. Weigel is too serious of a scholar not to have known about the importance of Półtawska – she has been even rumored to be the ghost author behind some of John Paul’s encyclicals. It is impossible to say why Weigel does not mention her, but this is most certainly not a simple overlook. Regardless of the actual reasons, this gap leaves us wanting for more.

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