A primer on the Pope

By on March 1, 2000

Witness to Hope
The Biography of Pope John Paul II
by George Weigel
992 pages
hardcover, $51.00
Harper Collins
0 06 018793 X

JT IS PART of the persona of this pope that he manages simultaneously to attract and repel, to enthral and to appal. And so too with books about him.

Karol Wojtyla, Bishop of Rome, heir to St. Peter is, undeniably, one of the giants of the age. Longevity in office alone would assure the man a niche in history, yet he is so much more than merely one in a considerable lineage of long-serving popes. Dramaturge, philosopher, athlete, romantic, poet, mystic, statesman, liberal, reactionary, John Paul II, when history tallies the importance of 20th century personalities, is assured a place among the top handful of people who have left an imprint on the 1900s.

The problem in authoring yet another biography of this much-biographied giant is simply: what remains to be said? By the admittedly uncharitable criteria of novelty and originality, Weigel’s effort is only a qualified success. Some books on John Paul have been more riveting, others less so.

As well, one wonders where the author is coming from. “Authorized” biographies, in my view, are dismissible by their very nature, being effectively ghostwritten autobiographies. I am uncomfortable by the length to which Weigel feels compelled to go to explain that his work is not authorized, especially when publicity material sent by the publisher includes a copy of a wishing-you-well-in-your-endeavour letter to the author by none other than the same Karol Wojtyla.

Yet, if you have never read a book on John Paul II, this is a good one to begin with, if for no other reason than it is the latest, that here, John Paul achieves his dream of surviving the 20th century. If you have read biographies of the Polish Pope before ? then wait awhile before tackling another. Like all giants of history, the ultimate examination of Karol Wojtyla’s life and the ultimate analysis of his importance will have to await a more distant context. History, it is trite to say, requires more of a timely perspective than Weigel has at his disposal as of this writing.

Vianney Carriere is editor of MinistryMatters.

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