The following is a transcript of part two 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.
GW: I think the deeper parallelisms between these two lives is that these were men who were both orphans, fairly early. John Paul II literally, Reagan metaphorically, given the troubles of his father. They were both men of the theater, who had a profound conviction that the word of truth spoken forcefully enough was a real factor in human affairs. They both had the ability to project a kind of confidence about the human future while being realists about the circumstances of our times. They both got to positions that no one ever expected them to get to, and they were both dismissed as “conservatives” by people for whom that word was often a placeholder for “reactionary”. This was complete nonsense in both cases. The truth of the matter was that both men were radicals. John Paul II was a radically converted Christian disciple and Reagan was a genuine radical in terms of the Cold War, which he believed should be won and not managed. And so there was a lot in common here. There was no holy conspiracy. There was no joint strategic planning. But these were two men who were each pursuing their own responsibilities in a way that ended up delivering the death blows to the communist system in Central and Eastern Europe. And I think the Pope retained a great respect for President Reagan until the end of Reagan’s life. I remember a conversation with John Paul II, about six months before President Reagan died, in which I told the Pope that Reagan’s Alzheimer’s was such that he no longer remembered being president. And the Pope just found this immensely sad because he, John Paul II, was a deeply reflective man and I think he just couldn’t imagine what it would be like not to be able to reflect on your life because you had no grasp of that in your memory. So a lot of mutual respect in both directions.
GT: In the second book you talk about the Great Jubilee of 2000 as being kind of a hinge point of the pontificate and I was interested to learn… not being Catholic, I’m not familiar with the Holy Door but there’s been a lot of discussion about the symbolism of the Holy Door and the effort to eradicate or at least manage the international debt that some celebrities like U2 got on board with. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about the Great Jubilee and what a pivot point that was for his pontificate.
GW: Well, Poles culturally have a great sense of the importance of anniversaries. I’m not sure what the origins of this are, but it’s something deeply embedded in Polish culture. John Paul II, as the Archbishop of Krakow had had a powerful experience of the millennium celebrations of Polish Christianity in 1966-67 and how that had become the occasion for a kind of re-catechises, or re-education, of the whole nation in the Christian faith at the roots of its Christian experience. For him the year 2000 was not some sort of calendrical accident. It was something that provided an enormous opportunity to remind the world of the centrality of the incarnation, the centrality of the figure of Christ in human history, and to reenergize the church for a new millennium of evangelization and witness so this became the focal point toward which the pontificate from 1978 to 2000 was directed. The Holy Door tradition is an ancient one in Rome; it symbolizes in some respects the opening of a special moment of grace and divine favor. What was interesting symbolically about the opening of the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica on the night of December 24-25, 1999, Christmas Eve, was that unlike previous occasions when the Pope would knock on this masonry wall and the wall would fall down and there would be all this dust and whatnot and he’d clear the way and the door would open, they took all the masonry, the bricks of the door on one side, away beforehand, so that all the Pope did was push the doors gently open, which I think was his way to symbolize another great theme of his pontificate, the divine mercy: the merciful father who reaches out to prodigal sons and daughters and offers them the possibility of communion with him. So that was a great moment – I was actually there for that with my family in St. Peter’s and it was a very memorable night indeed.
GT: Well, speaking of opening doors, he also really was reaching out to other faiths and people – separated brethren, Protestants as well, and he had a big emphasis on ecumenism and in the book you detail how at one point he kissed a Koran and he also went to Yad Vashem in Israel and also talked about how he reached across all sorts of divides: Orthodox divides, Russian Orthodoxy and all the other churches out there that have been split from the Catholic church and it was part of his heart to try and heal some of those…
GW: On the question of Christian unity, John Paul II believed that God’s gifts are permanent, that Christ bequeaths the church the gift of unity at the beginning, that we had made a mess of this as Christians and it was our task to recompose the fullness of that unity, the fundamentals of which had never been completely lost. He was not altogether successful in this, for a variety of reasons which we probably don’t have time to get into but people can explore that in The End and the Beginning. He also believed that there was a deep bond between Christianity and living Judaism and that the people who claimed Abraham as their father in faith ought to be talking together again not only about civil intolerant societies but about the deeper truths of God’s revelation in Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus. The Pope’s kiss of a Koran, which was wildly controversial in some circles, was an expression of esteem for Muslim piety. John Paul II had no theological illusions about the Islamic thought system and the claims of Islam to have superseded both Christianity and Judaism and he knew that Islam had a very different idea of the God of the Bible than Jews and Christians did. I think what gets missed a lot in all of this is the Pope’s outreach to another quasi-religious system and that is the world of modern science, which purports to be an all-purpose explanatory system, like many religions, and the Pope’s intense interest in forging a new conversation between the people of faith and both the hard sciences and the life sciences I think was quite a prominent theme in the pontificate and bore some real fruit with physics, astronomy, chemistry – the hard sciences, got very difficult with the life sciences – biology, genetics and so forth – for obvious reasons having to do with some morally dubious developments in biotechnology. But the conversation today is much more robust than it was 30, 40 years ago and that’s part of the accomplishment of John Paul II as well.
GT: At the end of your second book you talk a little bit about the shortcomings of the pontificate. You go into Iraq, the Long Lent, dealing with the priest sexual abuse scandals, you also talk about the European demographic issue and the Legionary of Christ founder Marcial Maciel.
GW: I think the most significant of these for the long term, in terms of challenges the Pope faced and tried to address and history was simply not prepared to allow him to be successful is the question of Europe. John Paul II had a sense that Europe was dying as a civilization. That having cut itself off from its Christian roots it had found nothing to fill its life except the pursuit of immediate gratifications. This had led, among other things, to the most catastrophically low birth rates in human history and a literal emptying out of the continent of Europe – a vacuum, as we all know, now being filled by immigrant populations from a very different civilizational orbit and with a very different idea of the human future. And he tried for 26 ½ years to summon Europe back to its Christian roots and we will have to see whether those efforts bear some fruit. But just this morning before our conversation I was reading a speech by the so-called president of the European Union, [Herman] Van Rompuy, in which he was calling Europe back to a rediscovery of its roots which he described as Ancient Greece. Now, look, classical civilization plays a large role in the formation of the West but to talk about the roots of Europe without talking about Christianity, which among other things preserved the civilization of antiquity during the so-called Dark Ages, is mindless self-lobotomization here, you’re just cutting off your own historical memory. That illustrates the kind of problem that John Paul II faced and I have to say that the odds on him having won that argument are not looking particularly good five years after his death. But history is full of surprises and we will see where all of that goes.
GT: On a final note, I thought that the way that you described the end of Pope John Paul II’s life as being his last encyclical was a really beautiful word picture of what he suffered and what it meant to the rest of the world through his suffering.
GW: I think the last two months of his life were his last great teaching moment, to use the stock phrase. He invited people into an experience of the mystery of suffering transformed by identification with the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. And he did it not by a lot of words, but simply by the example of a man courageously walking the way of his own cross, and that had a fantastic and unexpected impact. One of his oldest friends, a layman, told me on the last Easter Sunday of the Pope’s life, just six days before he died, “I think they’re finally beginning to understand him.” And I think that’s exactly right. I think the world finally got clear, at the very end of the tale, that this man was first, foremost and most fundamentally a Christian disciple. And that everything else he did – for the world, for the cause of human rights, for the cause of religious freedom, for the liberation of his Slavic brethren in Central and Eastern Europe, for the Catholic church, for the Christian church, et cetera, et cetera – was a manifestation of that discipleship.
GT: So it all stemmed from his relationship with Christ and his dedication to his faith.
GW: It all stemmed from that.
GT: Well, thank you very much, Mr. Weigel, for speaking with us.
GW: Thank you for having me.