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Ten great works about the life and thought of Pope St. John Paul II

Books by George Weigel, Andrea Riccardi, Sławomir Oder, Darcy O’Brien, and others, along with one film.

The hundredth anniversary of the birth of St. John Paul II, one of the most influential popes in Church history, will be on Monday May 18. Because of COVID-19 lockdown measures, some of us have more opportunities to read books and watch movies than usual. What better time to learn more about Karol Wojtyła’s life, thought, and legacy than now? Here is a list of the ten exceptional works about Pope St. John Paul II: nine books and one film.

Witness to Hope (Harper Perennial, 2001); The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II – The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years (Image, 2010), the Legacy; Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II (Basic Books, 2017), by George Weigel

If you ever read about Pope John Paul II in works of history and look at the footnotes, they will likely reference Weigel’s books, especially Witness to Hope, the definitive biography of the pontiff. George Weigel spent years interviewing the pope and people who knew him in Poland, Rome, and elsewhere. Witness to Hope works well as an encyclopedia on John Paul’s life and especially his pilgrimages to different nations and their social, political, and religious context and impact.

Many of Weigel’s interlocutors have revealed rather interesting details and shared quotable remarks. For example, Cardinal Jaime Sin, the late archbishop of Manila and the informal leader of the 1986 peaceful revolution against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, tells Weigel that he was inspired by the examples of John Paul II and Solidarity. Meanwhile, Weigel quotes Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the postulator of the cause for canonization of St. Oscar Romero, who was unfairly and inaccurately accused by some of being a Marxist sympathizer, who says of the Salvadoran martyr: “This bishop is the Church’s bishop, not the Left’s bishop.”

Witness to Hope was published in early 2000, five years before John Paul II’s death. The End and the Beginning, however, is not a mere sequel. Apart from chronicling the last five years of the saint’s life (including his death, which moved millions), it also features a fine assessment of John Paul II’s role in the collapse of communism.

The most recent part of the “Weigel trilogy” is Lessons in Hope. This is Weigel’s engaging and never self-indulgent memoir of how he wrote Witness to Hope. The book contains a myriad of many great names in Catholic history Weigel had the privilege of meeting while working on the book. Chronicling Weigel’s beginnings as a journalist in the 1970s and his evolution as one of America’s leading Catholic commentators, Lessons in Hope can also be inspiring reading for aspiring young writers.

City of Saints: A Pilgrimage to John Paul II’s Krakow (Image, 2015), by George Weigel, Carrie Gress, Stephen Weigel

Weigel also co-authored a fine book on Krakow, the city where Karol Wojtyła lived from 1938 until his election to the papacy forty years later. When the pandemic ends and international travel again becomes possible, John Paul II’s Krakow is a great place to visit, and the Weigels and Carrie Gress provides an excellent historical introduction to the place where his vocation matured. We learn about the city’s medieval history and its more recent oppression under Nazi Germany and communist rule.

Weigel introduces the reader to such Krakow saints as Stanislaus, Bishop and Martyr; Jadwiga, Queen of Poland; or Albert Chmielowski. We learn about places closely linked to Wojtyła, such as Nowa Huta, the working class neighborhood centrally planned by communists, who unsuccessfully tried to create a district without God, or the quarry where he worked under German occupation, which helped him to develop his teaching on the value of human labor. Trust me; this is a much better guide to Krakow than anything from Lonely Planet or Fodor’s.

John Paul II: The Biography (Cinisello Balsamo 2011), by Andrea Riccardi

Apart from George Weigel’s trilogy, the best biography of John Paul II I’ve read is by Andrea Riccardi, originally written in Italian, but translated into numerous European languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and French. Unfortunately, English is not one of them. I hope that including this book in this article could interest some publisher in an English translation.

Andrea Riccardi is the founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay Catholic community from Italy that is present throughout the world and is devoted to promoting peace (the community played a key role in the negotiations ended the civil war in Mozambique) and aiding the poor and refugees. He is also a professor of history and a sometime politician.

Apart from standard information about Karol Wojtyła’s youth and formation found in all other biographies, this book contains many prescient analyses of the political impact of many of St. John Paul II’s teachings, actions, and pilgrimages. Many are much less known than the familiar narrative of the 1979 visit to Poland and its role in inspiring the foundation of Solidarity, including John Paul II’s clashing with the Bush administration over the invasion of Iraq, his attitude to the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the 1990s, his attempts at mediation in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and many other fascinating stories.

One chapter is brilliantly titled “No to Communism, Not Yes to Capitalism.” In it, Riccardi deconstructs the media caricature of John Paul II as basically the Henry Kissinger of the Vatican. Yes, Riccardi writes, John Paul II knew the philosophical foundations of Marxism-Leninism and himself experienced communist rule firsthand, so he was not naïve about the anthropological lies of communism. However, he had no taste for laissez-faire capitalism, with its greedy materialism and marginalization of the poor, either.

Why He Is a Saint: The Life and Faith of Pope John Paul II and the Case for Canonization (Rizzoli, 2010), by Sławomir Oder

With the possible exception of George Weigel, arguably no one knows more about John Paul II than Father Sławomir Oder, a Polish priest who served as the postulator for the pope’s cause for canonization. Father Oder spent hundreds of hours speaking to people who knew John Paul II and went through thousands of pages of documents related to his life.

In Why He Is a Saint, Oder shares all he learned about John Paul with his readers. The book also reveals much fascinating information for the first time, such as that during his meeting with Augusto Pinochet behind closed doors Pope St. John Paul II asked him to give democracy a chance. This inspired the Chilean dictator, who considered himself a Catholic, to hold a plebiscite on bringing back civilian rule to his country.

The Hidden Pope: The Untold Story of a Lifelong Friendship That Changed the Relationship Between Catholics and Jews (Rodale Books, 1998), by Darcy O’Brien

Over the past two millennia, relations between Jews and Christians have often been tense and painful. Although there have been plenty of Catholic friends of the Jews in history, such as St. Augustine or Pope Gregory IX, the tragic truth is that there have been many examples of Christian persecution of Jews across the centuries.

Pope St. John Paul II, however, reminded the world that the Jews are the Christians’ elder brothers in the faith. He repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism, and he became the first pope to make an official visit to a synagogue and to establish diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel.

Darcy O’Brien’s beautiful book tells the story of the lifelong friendship between Karol Wojtyła and Jerzy Kluger, which started in their hometown of Wadowice, Poland, when they were childhood pals. Karol’s visits to Jerzy’s house, including for Seder meals and the lighting of Shabbos candles, were his first direct exposure to Judaism.

During World War II, Kluger took part in the Polish II Corps, an Allied army of Polish gulag prisoners freed by Stalin (after the Germans invaded the USSR, Stalin was desperate for manpower) that played an important role in liberating Italy. Afterwards, Kluger settled in Rome.

After his election as head of the Catholic Church, John Paul II also found himself in Rome, and the two men reignited their friendship. Kluger played a crucial behind-the-scenes role as the pope’s advisor on Jewish matters and his liaison with the Jewish community. The Hidden Pope is a touching story of the power of friendship and how building bridges with people of different faiths can change the world.

The Thought of the Man Who Became Pope John Paul II (Eerdmans, 1997), by Rocco Buttiglione

The philosophical writing of Karol Wojtyła, a marriage of classic Thomism with twentieth-century phenomenology, is difficult. Before you get discouraged, though, pick up Buttiglione’s book, a great primer and guide on the future pope’s thinking.

Buttiglione is one of Italy’s leading contemporary philosophers, political scientists, and commentators on Catholic matters. He is also a statesman and was the victim of Christophobia and silly political correctness: in 2004, he was nominated to serve as a member of the European Commission, but the European Parliament struck down his candidacy because – oh, the horror! – he believes that marriage is the union of a man and a woman.

Rocco Buttiglione was also a personal friend of St. John Paul II and knows Polish, which allowed him direct access both to the subject of his book and to Polish-language materials that are otherwise impermeable to most other scholars outside Poland. Buttiglione introduces Love and Responsibility, Wojtyła’s philosophical meditation on the ethics of relationships between man and women; his Christian personalist book on ethics The Acting Person; Karol Wojtyła’s contributions to the Second Vatican Council; and even his poetry. All this is presented within the context of Wojtyła’s philosophical formation and the historical background in which his vocation as a philosopher was formed.

Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights from John Paul II’s “Love and Responsibility” (Servant, 2105), by Edward Sri

Of all of Karol Wojtyła’s philosophical works, arguably the one that is most practical in our everyday lives is 1960’s Love and Responsibility. While this book is considered to be relatively easy by Wojtyła standards, it’s still quite a challenging read, especially for non-philosophers like myself. The book deals with the ethical aspects of relationships between men and women and can be insightful in helping to build successful courtship and later marriages based on truly respecting the other person rather than selfishly using others as objects.

Edward Sri has done a fine job of turning a difficult philosophical work into an easy-to-read, quick (I read it in about two hours) read with practical tips on how to build better marriages, romantic relationships, and even friendships with the help of Love and Responsibility. There are chapters addressed specifically to single people and engaged couples. At the end of each chapter, there are discussion question, which makes this a perfect tool for pastors who deal with marriage preparation, marriage counseling, or young adult ministry.

Nine Days That Changed the World (Citizens United Productions, 2010)

Much has been said about Pope St. John Paul II’s 1979 visit to his native Poland and its impact on the rise of Solidarity, the most massive movement to challenge Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe, one year later. This whole story has been compressed into a ninety-minute documentary with a beautiful score. I have shown this film or borrowed the DVD to many people – Poles who know this story and well, and Americans who are less familiar with it; Catholics and non-Catholics; elderly people who lived under communism and youths for whom the Cold War is merely a chapter from their high school history textbooks – and without exception all were profoundly moved by it.

The cast of characters is truly impressive. The documentary features interviews with John Paul II’s associates; with Solidarity activists and the two most famous dissidents from behind the Iron Curtain, Lech Wałęsa of Poland and Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia; and plenty of insightful commentators like George Weigel or Marcello Pera, an Italian philosopher and politician who personally is an atheist, but has repeatedly defended Europe’s Judeo-Christian roots and the right of unborn humans to life..


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About Filip Mazurczak 52 Articles
Filip Mazurczak is a journalist, translator, and historian. His writing has appeared in the National Catholic Register, First Things, Tygodnik Powszechny, and other publications.

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