The following is a transcript of part one of Gayle Trotter’s podcast interview with George Weigel. Gayle talks with Weigel about The End and the Beginning, the newly released second part of his biography of John Paul II. Weigel, the author of fifteen books and a weekly syndicated column, is a Roman Catholic theologian and Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Join us as we discuss why Pope John Paul II was a sign of contradiction, what Weigel’s most surprising discoveries were in his research, and how the last two months of Pope John Paul II’s life represented the Pope’s last encyclical. Listen to part 1 and part 2 of Gayle’s discussion with George Weigel about the life and legacy of Pope John Paul II.
GT: This is Gayle Trotter. I’m speaking today with George Weigel, author of the biography of Pope John Paul II, which was done in two parts. We will be discussing the newly released second part, called The End and the Beginning. Pope John Paul II was a polarizing figure. Internationally, he commanded great respect and love, as shown by the throngs who attended World Youth Days. On the other hand, he embittered celebrities like Sinead O’Connor, an Irish singer who infamously tore up his picture during a Saturday Night Live appearance, while she said, “Fight the real enemy.” Politically, he emboldened those heroes in the battle for freedom and democracy; while at the same time, he was the target of extreme hatred and plotting by the KGB, Stasi and Polish police. Mr. Weigel, why was Pope John Paul II such a contradiction?
GW: Well, let’s start with Sinead O’Connor. Two hundred years from now no one will remember who Sinead O’Connor was or why she behaved in such a ridiculous and silly manner. Two hundred years from now people of all faiths, people of no faith but with a genuine concern for human dignity, will be wrestling with the thought of Pope John Paul II. So the fact that Sinead O’Connor behaved like an idiot on Saturday Night Live is of no consequence to any of this. John Paul II was a sign of contradiction because that’s what Christians are. The Christian understanding of the human person, particularly as that relates to our embodiments as male and female, is a sign of contradiction in a culture like the culture of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, in which men and women imagined that everything is plastic and malleable, including their own humanity. And he insisted that no, there’s something, there’s a givenness to the human condition and that there’s a beauty in that givenness that we miss if we insist that it’s all changeable and fungible and malleable. So that was one reason why he was a sign of contradiction. I think he was also a sign of contradiction in the broader sweep of history in that no one expected in the last quarter of the 20th century that a Polish priest and bishop would become the pivotal figure in one of the great historical turning points of modernity, namely the collapse of European communism. And people often behave oddly when their assumptions about what makes history work don’t quite pan out. So, I think we’re actually over that part of the critique of John Paul II. I mean any reasonable student of the last 22 years of the 20th century, in the last dozen years of the Cold War, recognizes what a crucial role he played in bringing to an end the greatest system of tyranny in human history, and doing that in the main without violence, which was no small accomplishment. But the argument about the Christian claim, which he embodied in a singular way, is going to continue for a very long time, and we shouldn’t be surprised by that.
GT: Well, he was such a towering figure. How did you set out to embark on such a large and momentous project as writing about his life?
GW: In 1995, I had been writing about John Paul II for almost 17 years; that is from the beginning of the pontificate. And it seemed to me quite bizarre that while there had been several attempts at comprehensive, major biographies of the Pope, there had not been one that was really reliable. And I thought I could do this. I had, as I say, been writing about him for more than a decade and a half. I had written the first book arguing that the Pope and the Church were crucial in the collapse of communism – we’ll call it the “final revolution.” I had been in personal conversation with him for some time. I had an academic background that prepared me to explain his complex mind and thought in a way that ordinary people could understand, people without some sort of specialized training. So I thought I could do this, and I thought it was investing 15 years in doing it. So that’s what I’ve done. Witness to Hope, the first volume of the biography of Pope John Paul II was published in 1999 and is now available in some 14 languages around the world.
GW: With two more coming. And The End and the Beginning, which completes the story and deepens the story, was just published in September 2010. So I have done what I set out to do, thank God, in 1995. And I hope this provides for the foreseeable future, a reference point – a reliable reference point – for anyone who wants to wrestle with the remarkable human story as well as the very challenging thought of one of the largest-scale figures of our time.
GT: Would you consider the Pope was your friend?
GW: We had a very friendly relationship. It was a very mature relationship. We didn’t agree about everything. I think he thought of me as someone who understood him and could interpret him, particularly to the English-speaking world. I certainly admired him enormously, without agreeing with him on all of his prudential judgments. So yes, I mean I would say it was a friendship, but that the friendship did not get in the way of an honest conversation.
GT: Would you say that made it easier to undertake this monumental task? Or maybe harder?
GW: I don’t think it makes it harder. I never was a sycophant. I mean I understand no human being is perfect. I had spent virtually my entire adult life in dealing with senior figures in the Catholic Church, so I was not over-awed by the fact that I found myself in the Vatican on a regular basis dealing with high-ranking churchmen. I had a lot of experience in doing that. I think the idea of the biographer as prosecuting attorney is a bad idea. This began with Lytton Strachey in the late 19th century with a dreadful book called Eminent Victorians, in which he really tried to chop down the reputations of Florence Nightingale and Cardinal Manning and several other people. This is a very bad idea. The biographer’s task is to try to understand the subject as he or she understood themselves. Then you can make some judgments about whether that understanding and how it was applied to the world was an accurate or adequate one. But to begin with the idea that you know, “Everybody’s a crook and I’m gonna find out what was crooked about this person…”
GT: Right, right.
GW: This is really a dumb way to try to grasp the essence of a life.
GT: Was their anything surprising that you found when you were writing these books?
GW: Oh, there’s lots of stuff that was surprising. I mean in the new book, The End and the Beginning, I bring to the public for the first time materials from the files of the KGB, the Polish Secret Police, the East German Stasi, the Hungarian Intelligence Service, all of whom were working overtime to impede the work of Karol Wojtyla – of Pope John Paul II – who were working overtime to penetrate the Vatican, in which they were unfortunately successful. This is all very, very dramatic stuff. And the whole story of Wojtyla’s 40-year contest with communism is the stuff of novels. And indeed several people have said that the first third of The End and the Beginning reads like a spy novel.
GT: Yes, yes it does.
GW: To which I have to say “thank you,” but let’s remember that all of this really happened.
GT: And that makes it even more compelling, right?
GW: I think so. And I think it magnifies his own achievement, that in the face of this vicious and concerted opposition, he was able to remain true to the truths by which he tried to live his life, and had an enormous impact on history because of that. In preparing Witness to Hope in the late 1990s, I would say the two biggest surprises were to come to recognize the degree to which the experience of the second world war was the formative experience of John Paul II’s life, and then to discover that he had been nurtured as a man, and as a priest, and a bishop, and later as a pope, by a remarkable network of lay friends…
GT: How do you pronounce the…
GW: …men and women. Srodowisko is what they called themselves.
GW: It’s a Polish word that’s basically untranslatable; means something like environment, or millieu, or whatever. This was a gang of networks of men and women whom he met when they were first in university in Krakow in the late 1940s, early 1950s, and he was a young university chaplain. These people remained among his closest friends until the end of his life. As he was forming them into mature Catholic laity, they were forming him into one of the most dynamic young priests of his generation. And it was a remarkable set of friendships that endured – as I indicate in The End and the Beginning – literally to the end of the Pope’s life with 70 of these people attending his funeral, sitting right behind the heads of state. I would have put them in front of the heads of state myself, but the Vatican has its own protocols.
GT: He probably would have too, right?
GW: He would have winked and nodded at them and gone along with the way that diplomatic protocol required.
GT: Well, there’s a charming story about his birthday, where he celebrated at Castle Gandolfo?
GW: Castel Gandolfo.
GT: And some of these members came, and they brought a kayak, which is what he had done with them, kayaking and mountain climbing.
GT: And he wasn’t able to do that, obviously at the end of his life, but they, you know, “mountain to Mohammed.” They brought the kayak.
GW: They brought the kayak. And you can still see the kayak in Krakow. If you know…
GW: If you know the right people.
GT: Have you seen it?
GW: I have.
GT: Oh, that’s great.
GW: I’ve seen some of the sacred kayaks.
GT: So on this young people topic, there’s a great quote in your book about how the Pope did not pander to young people, but he challenged them.
GW: I think that was a large part of his attraction to young people, because again here he was a sign of contradiction. Young people today live in a culture that panders to them in everything from language and modes of dress to expectations, which have been dumbed down to an astonishing degree. John Paul II did not pander to young people. He said to them in virtual infinity of variations on the same theme, “Don’t ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that God’s grace makes available to you. You’re going to fail. That’s no reason to lower the bar of expectation. Get up, dust yourself off, seek forgiveness and try again. But don’t level the bar of expectation because you’re demeaning your own humanity if you do that.”
GT: Right, right. Well, another figure against communism, a towering figure, was Reagan. And Reagan and the Pope had a special relationship I would say, kind of similar tracks. And they both respected what they were each doing in their own spheres. And in the book you draw a parallel between the two of them, and things that they had experienced, and especially the assassination attempts and their reactions to it. And Pope John Paul II came out from the assassination attempt from the hospital and his attitude was one of forgiveness of the assassin, of the attempted assassin. And Reagan had kind of a similar reaction to it as well. Can you talk about that at all?
GW: I wouldn’t over stress the parallelism of the assassination attempts, although it’s quite striking that they took place within two months of each other in the spring of 1981.
(end of part one)