For a society aptly described by Pope St. John Paul II as the “Culture of Death”, most of us are not very comfortable facing mortality. However, as the old saying goes, death is one of the two inescapable certainties of life. When a beloved celebrity dies, we see the requisite tributes flooding Twitter for a day or so, but then we move on to talk about more “pleasant” things.
A new book from George Weigel not only looks death squarely in the face, it also takes the opportunity to really reflect on the lives of more than 60 individuals (and one deep space probe), and what those lives can teach us about the human condition and how to live in today’s world. In Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius Press, 2021), Weigel reflects on how these people touched his own life, and the impact they had on so many more.
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 has written over two dozen books, including the internationally acclaimed biography of Saint John Paul II in two volumes: Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning.
Weigel recently spoke with Catholic World Report about his newest book.
Catholic World Report: How did the book come about?
George Weigel: It occurred to me in early 2020 that I’d been writing rather a lot of obituary columns and articles in recent years, and that those pieces, combined with others I’d written before, might make an interesting book. So Not Forgotten is a panorama of some fascinating people whom I’ve either known personally or admired from a distance, all of whom have something to teach us about leading a worthy life — although some of them teach it along the old via negativa.
CWR: How did you go about selecting the folks to include here? (I use the term “folks” loosely, as you even have a chapter dedicated to the Pioneer 10 probe.)
Weigel: From all the elegies I’d written I tried to choose ones that illustrate one facet of another of vocational or purposeful living. I also wanted the book to be broad-gauged, so readers meet everyone from canonized saints to rock ‘n’ roll stars to sports heroes to gifted writers to public officials who knew that politics isn’t performance art.
CWR: Was there anyone you wanted to include, but chose not to for one reason or another?
Weigel: No, no really. My dear friend and collaborator of thirty years, Father Maciej Zięba, OP, a Polish Dominican and a favorite spiritual son of Pope St. John Paul II, died while the book was at the press, so I couldn’t include him; perhaps in a second edition?
CWR: In the preface you write that you hope these elegies and tributes “might have lasting value for the insight these lives, most of them admirable, give us into the human and Christian condition today.” How do you think these lives give us that insight?
Weigel: Each does it differently, obviously. Henry Hyde and Scoop Jackson remind us that American democracy was once capable of producing statesmen, not just tweet-blasters and other specialists in hyperbole and snark. Sophie Scholl teaches us what conscience really means, not what some misguided prelates imagine it means. Charles Krauthammer and Cardinal Francis George teach us how to live with suffering and physical limitations. Don Briel teaches us what Catholic higher education ought to be. Fathers Paul Mankowski and James Schall remind us of what the Society of Jesus once was, and might be again. And so on.
CWR: You write that all of the people included in the book can teach us how to live, although for some it is by the via negativa. Why include those with whom you may have disagreed strongly during their lives? To what end?
Weigel: The story of the frustrated love affair of Denny Doherty and Cass Elliott (my fellow former-Baltimorean) of The Mamas and the Papas teaches us important if hard lessons about the ersatz love on offer in the Sixties: a fraud that remains, alas, too much with us today. Pete Seeger, for all his musical talent, was a political idiot (and worse) whose refusal to deal with the realities of the communism he espoused is a perennial reminded of what ideology can do to otherwise sound minds — and not just on the left end of the political spectrum.
CWR: In the book you consider the lives of some of the great intellectual heavyweights of the twentieth century: everyone from Albert Einstein and St. John Paul II, to William F. Buckley and Avery Dulles; not to mention those who may be less well-known to the wider culture, like Dietrich von Hildebrand, Fr. Paul Mankowski, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Fr. James Schall, and Michael Novak. What good can come out of reflecting on the lives of these men and women of such towering intellect?
Weigel: I rather doubt that Father Neuhaus and Mike Novak were “lesser known” in the wider culture, as they were two of the most publicly prominent U.S. catholic intellectuals of the last fifty years, and their work continues to have impact. In any event, what all of these figures teach us is the importance of courage in the intellectual life. Bill Buckley took on an entrenched liberal culture with grit and brio — and later had the courage to admit that he’d been wrong about federal civil rights legislation.
Unlike some 1930s Catholic intellectuals besotted with visions of a new Christendom, von Hildebrand always knew Hitler for the antichrist he was and Nazism for the plague it was. Fr. Paul Mankowski’s fidelity to his Jesuit vocation even as he was being persecuted by his own religious community was a multi-decade act of courage that never descended into bitterness.
CWR: Many of these people you knew personally; you even include elegies for your mother and father. Is it more challenging to examine the life and legacy of those with whom you had a personal relationship?
Weigel: No, I don’t think so. I’ve been blessed by the friendship or acquaintance of a lot of remarkable people and it’s a small repayment on the debt I owe them to memorialize them and give others the chance to know them a bit.
CWR: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Weigel: A sense of encouragement. Virtually all of the lives I sketch or reminisce about are inspiring, and in this hard season through which we’re living, inspiration from some of the noble souls who’ve gone before us is helpful in maintaining perspective, and hope.
CWR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Weigel: These lives remind us that every human life (as one of seminarian Joseph Ratzinger’s professors taught him in the late 1940s) is an “idea of God,” and that the work of “making a life” or “making one’s soul” (as an older spirituality had it) is a matter of conforming my idea of my life and the way I live it with God’s idea of my life and how I should live it. That’s the drama of the human condition: living in the gap between the person I am and the person I ought to be, and cooperating with grace in trying to close that gap. Those constant reminders on the London Underground — “Mind the Gap” — are, inadvertently, an invitation to live vocationally.
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