George Weigel’s new book, “Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II,” is the third in a series on the former pope — and this one is personal.
After writing the authoritative biography, “Witness to Hope” (1999), and the story of his final years, “The End and the Beginning” (2010), Weigel calls “Lessons in Hope” the third panel in a triptych, to further bring readers into the realities of our incarnational faith.
This book is for anyone who wants “to get to know more personally a saint who bent the course of history in a humane direction, and to know him in ways that didn’t quite fit the genre of serious biography,” Weigel writes.
Inspired by Butler’s “Lives of the Saints,” Weigel in this book includes stories and impressions that might otherwise be lost to history, presenting the story of an unlikely yet providential friendship with a saint who changed the history of our times. Along the way, he helps us see the possibilities that approaching life and career vocationally can open for God to make use of and surprise us with.
Kathryn Jean Lopez spoke with Weigel about his new book.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: You quote John Paul II as saying, “They try to understand me from the outside, but I can only be understood from inside.” What was it about his time with God and friendships that was so important to understanding both him and how we are invited to live with God as Christians?
George Weigel: John Paul II’s accomplishments, in the Church and the world, have to be understood as the fruit of his prayer, even more than the fruit of his thought or action, because the thinking and the doing were energized and informed by the praying — by his daily conversation with the Lord.
As for his friendships, his intense interest in others’ personal and spiritual journeys gave him a rich insight into the human condition that served him very well as both an intellectual and a pastor.
Lopez: What was it about his spiritual mentor Jan Tyranowski’s friendship in particular that helped him? What does it teach us about the vocation of the laity in the Church?
Weigel: Tyranowski introduced young Karol Wojty≈Ça to the spirituality of the classic Carmelite reformers, John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila, and to the Marian theology of St. Louis de Montfort. The Carmelite immersion helped form the future pope’s cross-centered view of history — God will be vindicated, even if the path to Easter lies through Calvary.
The Montfortian introduction from Tyranowski, a mystically inclined tailor and layman, shaped John Paul’s conviction that all true Marian devotion is Christ-centered and Church-centered: Mary is the first disciple, not someone outside the Church in some antechamber between God and humanity.
Lopez: What is it about the providential view of history that John Paul II can teach us anew today?
Weigel: John Paul II deeply believed that Christians know how the world’s story is going to turn out, because they have seen and touched the finale in the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Which is to say, Christians know that God’s creative and redemptive purposes are going to be vindicated.
Knowing that that’s how the story turns out puts our own responsibilities in history in better perspective: Not that we become insouciant or imprudent, but we can be bold and courageous, knowing that the final result is not of our doing, but God’s. That’s how John Paul II lived his life, and that’s how and why he could bend history’s course in a more humane direction.
Lopez: What’s the chief lesson of hope we might need to let ourselves be challenged and guided by today?
Weigel: Let’s not let ourselves be paralyzed by what I’ve come to call the “tyranny of the possible” — the notion that some things just are, period, and there’s nothing we can do about them.
That’s what people were saying in October 1978, when John Paul II was elected, about the permanence of the Berlin Wall, the inability of the Catholic Church to reach young people and the incompatibility of Catholic doctrine with modern intellectual life. John Paul II refused to accept any of those “givens” and, because of that, he was able, with hard, shrewd work and great insight, to refute them.
Lopez: When all was said and done, what were the essential principles of the spiritual life of St. John Paul II? You quote Cardinal Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI, as saying, “His personal dialogue with God is decisive. … The deepest source of what he says is that, every day, he is, for an hour, alone with his Lord, and speaking, at least now as pope, about all the problems of the world. But he is also seeking the face of God. … In his meditations, he is in a personal contact with the Lord. … This dialogue with God is the central element in his spiritual and intellectual life.” To what extent should we all be living this?
Weigel: John Paul II was a genuine mystic, and mystical gifts are not given to everyone. But what we can all do is what he did: make time for God to speak to us. That doesn’t mean waiting for a Facebook post or a Tweet or an e-mail from God; it means silence, and some daily time with the Bible and careful listening. Prayer ought not be a monologue, i.e., we do all the talking.
Lopez: You write of Karol Wojtyla’s experience that “people in touch with their own culture can never be completely occupied, whether by a Nazi occupation force or by Communist usurpers.” Is there a danger we’re letting ourselves be occupied in a sense by relativism and even distraction these days? Can a culture survive under such circumstances?
Weigel: A democratic political culture can’t, that’s for sure. Because if there’s only “your truth” and “my truth” and nothing that either of us recognizes as “the truth,” then we can’t settle our differences without you imposing your power on me or my imposing my power on you. And we’re not going to rebuild a culture of “the truth” from beneath the rubble of relativism in 140 character eruptions. It’s going to take a lot more hard work, and prayer, than that.
Lopez: How is it that Karol Wojtyla never had a bank account and “had long lived outside everyday economic life”? Is that a saint thing?
Weigel: No, it was simply the way his life worked as a priest and bishop in Kraków: his material needs were looked after by the parish he served or by the diocese. He also gave things away that people gave to him. As one of his former Kracovian associates who worked for him in Rome once said, “It’s a good thing he can’t give away white cassocks or he would.”
Lopez: What is the chief lesson in the unexpectedness of your life with St. John Paul II?
Weigel: Think vocationally, not in terms of career. As “Lessons in Hope” illustrates, I’m a career counselor’s nightmare, in that I’ve usually ended up at the end of one decade doing something quite different than what I expected to be doing at the beginning of that decade. Trusting instincts about what-should-I-be-doing-next is a good rule to follow, I’ve found.
Lopez: Did John Paul II ever lose hope?
Weigel: He was a true spiritual Carmelite, so he certainly experienced what Carmelite spirituality describes as “dark nights” — periods when the presence of God seemed very distant. I describe one of these in the book, which occurred in the summer and early fall of 2003. But no, he never lost hope, because to lose hope is to despair, which was the “second sin” of Judas.
Lopez: You mention some of the “martyr-confessors” you met in the early 1990s when you spent time in Prague in a seminary that had recently been recovered from the Communists. This seems like it could be another book unto itself. What about their witness left an impression on you?
Weigel: The story of Catholicism’s survival in what was then Czechoslovakia would make a very compelling book indeed, because the most faithful and resistant parts of the Church in Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia felt betrayed by the Ostpolitik of Pope Paul VI (which sought an accommodation with Communist regimes) and were reenergized by the election of John Paul II, who was not an accommodator. Revisiting that experience is very important today, when Vatican diplomacy seems to be back in accommodationist mode in Russia, Venezuela, China and elsewhere.
As for the witness of the elderly priests I met, many of whom had been slave-prisoners in uranium mines two years before, what most impressed me about them was their humility. They didn’t think of themselves as heroes; they thought of themselves as men who had been given the grace and strength to do what they ought to have done, which was remain faithful to their vocations. That’s another lesson for today, in a Church in which some say that what is hard is merely an “ideal.” Well, it’s true that living the ideal, the truth, is hard; but we’re also called to strive, with the aid of God’s grace, to live up to it. Dumbing down the truth, the ideal, is demeaning to us, both humanly and spiritually.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review. Portions of this interview first appeared in National Review Online.