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On John Paul II’s centenary

He could preach solidarity, embody solidarity, and call people to a deeper solidarity because he was a radically converted Christian disciple

Pope John Paul II prays during a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in 2003. (CNS photo by Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

As the world and the Church mark the centenary of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II on May 18, a kaleidoscope of memories will shape my prayer and reflection that day. John Paul II at his dinner table, insatiably curious and full of humor; John Paul II groaning in prayer before the altar in the chapel of the papal apartment; John Paul II laughing at me from the Popemobile as I trudged along a dusty road outside Camagüey, Cuba, looking for the friends who had left me behind a papal Mass in January 1998; John Paul II, his face frozen by Parkinson’s Disease, speaking silently through his eyes in October 2003, “See what’s become of me….”; John Paul II, back in good form two months later, asking about my daughter’s recent wedding and chaffing me about whether I was ready to be a nonno [grandfather]; John Paul II lying in state in the Sala Clementina of the Apostolic Palace, his features natural and in repose, wearing the battered cordovan loafers that used to drive the traditional managers of popes crazy.

Each of these vignettes (and the others in my memoir of the saint, Lessons in Hope), has a particular personal resonance. Two, I suggest, capture the essence of the man for everyone on this centenary.

It was March 2000 and I was in Jerusalem with NBC to cover the papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land. For weeks, a global controversy about the Pope’s impending visit to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust memorial, had raged. What would he say? What should he say? What could he say?

I found out two days before the event, when, on a drizzly Tuesday evening, I walked past the Old City’s New Gate to the Notre Dame Center, where the papal party was staying. There, a friendly curial official slipped me a diskette with the texts of the Pope’s speeches and homilies during his visit. Back in my hotel room, I went immediately to the remarks prepared for Yad Vashem. As I read them, I felt a chill run down my spine.

At Yad Vashem itself, on March 23, the sight of the octogenarian pope bowed in silent prayer over the memorial hall’s eternal flame quickly muted the world’s pre-visit argument and speculation. And then came those unforgettable — and stunningly appropriate — words: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. Silence in which to remember. Silence in which to make some sense of the memories that come flooding back. Silence because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah [the Holocaust].”

Some days later, I got a phone call from an Israeli friend, Menahem Milson, a former soldier and distinguished scholar who had seen a lot on his life. “I just had to tell you,” he said, “that Arnona [his wife] and I cried throughout the Pope’s visit to Yad Vashem. This was wisdom, humaneness, and integrity personified. Nothing was missing. Nothing more needed to be said.”

The second emblematic memory from that papal pilgrimage came on March 26 when John Paul walked slowly down the great esplanade before the Western Wall of Herod’s Temple, stopped at the Wall, bowed his head in prayer, and then — like millions of pilgrims before him — left a petition in one of the Wall’s crevices: God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the nations; we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant. Amen. Joannes Paulus PP. II.

These two episodes give us the key to understanding Pope St. John Paul II. He could preach solidarity, embody solidarity, and call people to a deeper solidarity because he was a radically converted Christian disciple: one who believed in the depth of his being that salvation history — the story of God’s self-revelation to the People of Israel and ultimately in Jesus Christ — is the deepest truth, the inner truth, of world history. John Paul II, who was likely seen in person by more people than any human being in history, could move millions because the grace of God shone through him, ennobling all whom its brightness and warmth touched.

That was the key to the John Paul II effect: radiant, Christ-centered faith.


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About George Weigel 289 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His new book, The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission, will be published by Ignatius Press on July 7.

2 Comments

  1. I never forget participating in the mass in St Louis in 1999. We were packed inside the dome in the early AM. Finally Saint John Paul II arrived, a suffering servant, the Vicar of Christ, and I felt this holy aura, I felt God, I knew this holy Pope abided in Christ and Christ in him, this charisma got hold of my soul and filled me with awe and joy. He visited over a hundred nations and evangelized over the whole globe and to the end of the earth; leaving now open for conversion his first chosen, the Israelites. “For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?” (Rom 11-15). “The ‘full inclusion’ of the Jews in the Messiah’s salvation, in the wake of the “full number of the Gentiles”, will enable the People of God to achieve “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”, in which God will be all in all. (CC674). Christianity is so weakened we need the “new first blood” for the completeness of the redeemed. Please pray for the Jewish brothers.

  2. This essay’s author, George Weigel, is one of the foremost hagiographers and spinmeisters of JPII. Though unwarranted, he’s the first one to use and encourage the name and honorific: John Paul the Great. Because of people like him, JPII was dubiously made a saint quickly even with a number of questions that were raised about his personality and papacy. JPII should not have been hastily made a saint. The sex abuse scandal now infecting the worldwide church surged during his papacy. These cases of predominantly homosexual predation by priests and bishops were not forcefully confronted by JPII because these somehow went against the big ideas of his pet theological projects. These were the over-hyped and near cult-like idealization of sexuality (e.g., Theology of the Body, Love and Responsibility, etc.) and of the ministerial priesthood (e.g., Pastores Dabo Vobis, Gift and Mystery, etc.). By turning a blind eye to these developments, the gay mafia in the ranks of the bishops and priests grew in numbers and power and enabled this scandal to explode and its consequent cover-up. JPII promoted the global icon of this scandal, Theodore McCarrick, not just once but five times: Auxiliary Bishop of New York, Bishop of Metuchen, Archbishop of Newark, Archbishop of Washington, and Cardinal. The Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi founder, Marcial Maciel Degollado, another icon of this scandal who preyed upon his seminarians and priests and sired children, was favored by JPII with a preferential treatment and called him “a model of heroic priesthood.” George Weigel, in his hagiographical biographies of JPII (Witness to Hope, Lessons in Hope), tried defending this epic papal failure by rationalizing that JPII was disinclined to humiliate others which led him to misjudge others, even among bishops and priests. Weigel is either or both a big liar and/or just blinded by his hagiographical obsession. JPII humiliated, even crushed, a lot of bishops, priests, theologians he judged not toeing the line (picture JPII openly scolding Ernesto Cardenal at the tarmac of Managua airport). JPII should never have been hastily beatified and canonized.

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