John Paul II and me (and the Poles)

Wasn’t one assassination attempt against John Paul II enough?

Pope John Paul II during his first papal trip to Poland in June 1979. (Image: Wikipedia)

In the first chapter of Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy quoted an exasperated Congressman, John Steven McGroarty, who wrote an irritating constituent in these neatly acerbic terms:

One of the countless drawbacks of being in Congress is that I am compelled to receive letters from an impertinent jackass like you in which you say that I promised to have the Sierra Madre mountains reforested and I have been in Congress two months and haven’t done it. Will you please take two running jumps and go to hell.

As with Members of Congress, so with columnists: the temptation to respond to attacks with force can be severe. Over four decades of columnizing in the Catholic press and elsewhere, I have generally resisted those temptations except under the gravest provocations, especially those involving my honor and others’. This is one of those occasions.

In his March 18 “Letter from Rome” in La Croix International, Robert Mickens not only disserves his readers by displaying a deep ignorance of what is afoot in Rome these days (or, perhaps worse, a refusal to write about it); he also denounces me as “the self-promoting ‘official biographer’ of John Paul II.” This is false; it slanders me, and, worse, it slanders John Paul II. Such slanders require a public response, which may also serve to clarify some things.

First: I have never, ever, on any occasion or in print, described myself as John Paul II’s “official biographer.” In fact, I have always tried to correct that misimpression when well-intentioned but ill-informed people use that phrase (or “authorized biographer)” in introducing me.

An official or authorized biography is one that has been vetted, even edited, by the subject or his or her heirs, in return for access to the subject and his or her records. There was absolutely none of that in my relationship with John Paul II, as Mickens would have learned had he bothered to read p. 101 of my memoir, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II. There, I describe a dinner meeting with the Pope on March 7, 1996, in which I explained to John Paul that he could not see a word of what I would write until I handed him the published book — to which he replied, “That’s obvious. Now let’s talk about something interesting.”

Second, to suggest that John Paul II wanted a vetted biography is to suggest that he wanted a dishonest, or at least less-than-fully-honest, account of his life and pontificate. No one who actually knew the man could ever imagine him wanting any such thing (although it’s entirely imaginable — because it’s true — that some curialists preferred something other than the complete liberty the Pope gave me to write what I judged to be the truth).

Mickens, however, is not the only miscreant attacking John Paul II these days. Some of his fellow Poles are, on the basis of a recent “documentary” film, “Franciszkańska 3,” by Marcin Gutowski, and a new book, Maxima Culpa, by Ekke Overbeek. These new attacks use undigested and uncontextualized raw files from the communist-era Polish secret intelligence service to suggest that, as archbishop of Cracow, Karol Wojtyła covered up clerical sexual abuse.

Gutowski and Overbeek are agenda-driven, and they display their agenda without much subtlety: they seem less interested in the reform of the Church than in trying to demolish the reputation of Poland’s greatest son, who was also the country’s 20th-century liberator. No social and cultural projects, no dismay at the too-close identification of the Polish episcopate with one political party, and no anger at clerical arrogance can justify the calumnies against John Paul II that these critics and others have committed — calumnies to which longtime friends of Karol Wojtyła have too often responded tepidly and, it seems, fearfully; calumnies that are now being exported to the world.

Wasn’t one assassination attempt against John Paul II enough?

Clerical sexual abuse is a grave sin and crime. Sexual abuse was and is facilitated by the kind of clericalism infecting priests and bishops who imagine themselves a superior caste rather than the servants of all. And clerical sexual abuse must be rooted out of the Church if Catholicism is to be salt and light to the world, as the Lord Jesus commanded and John Paul II urged in his summons to the New Evangelization. This cleansing will require a thorough examination of the Church’s past, conducted according to internationally recognized methods and standards of historical scholarship.

John Paul II, who called Catholicism to “cleanse its memory,” would want nothing less.

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About George Weigel 445 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 most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


    • He was always clear enough were you to make an honorable effort to learn. He wanted all past wrongs committed by her sons and daughters exposed and accounted for.

    • The Catholic Church is a divine institution created by Jesus Christ – and run by (mostly) men.

      Given that it is run by (mostly) men – It is inevitable that there will be times – like now – when things are WAY out of kilter. At times like this it falls to us to turn to Christ – who promised He would never abandon us – to help us get things back to where they’re supposed to be.

      To be sure there never is a time when we don’t need to turn to Him, but times such as these strike me as making it even more important

  1. Any cleric working in a totalitarian state is put in a very difficult position if he wants to survive and continue. Knowing how much he can compromise is not easy. Transparency is not always possible and actions and words can be interpreted differently. Motives sometimes can never be known and much will be taken to the grave without ever being known. Any biography is at best only a very rough commentary on a very complicated life. Each reader critiques it differently through the lenses of experience and biases. To get overly irate over someone’s misinterpretation of our version of someone’s life is to misunderstand or underestimate the fallen human nature of man. Both writer and reader are sinners and both are right and wrong in different ways.I think it would be better if George Weigel and Robert Mickews would meet face to face over a cup of coffee and a Danish and talk about their different views and clarify their positions than to blast each other publically in print. It’s scriptural to go to your brother first. Calumny is a grave sin which we all (me included) must avoid. It may be the norm of the world, but as Christians it is not our way.

    • I agree with much of what you say, Mr O’Connor, however, when one party is unjustly and inaccurately blasting away in the public arena, then the recipient has the right to defend himself (and anyone else unjustly targeted) in the public arena as well. Otherwise, today’s public is misled, or worse.

  2. Mr. Weigel;

    An eloquent defense. You and I and Nancy D’Alesandro (sp?) all grew up in Ballamer in the 50s and if I remember (I could be making this up) there was a phrase we used at times – ‘Johnny-Unite-Us’.

    But that’s neither here nor there.

    Once upon a time in the early 70s I lived in Indiana and I was a reader of the Chicago Tribune, where both Ann Landers and her sister Dear Abby could be found. At some point one of their correspondents (I can’t remember which) made a particularly moronic comment, to which the response was “You have a point, but if you keep your hat on maybe no one will notice.”

    More than 50 years later – I STILL remember that comment.

    There must be a reason.

  3. I don’t want to slander GW, but could he possibly be less unself-aware?

    “I was having dinner with JPII, who gave me unprecedented access to all his papers, and — genuflecting — I said, ‘Holy Father, you realize I cannot let you vet my flattering portrait of you as my idol?’ ‘Silly George,” he reprimanded me,’ I am too perfect to ever suggest such an impropriety!’ Laughter ensured.”

    I was given a copy of “Witness to Hope” at my conversion. It’s a great read, thick and inspiring. And that’s just volume one. Let the reader understand. But over the years GW has played up his relationship with JPII and name-dropped his authority on the Polish pope so often that it’s become a running joke among those who frequent Catholic blogs. He may not have been JPII’s “official” biographer, but he most certainly was a favored one, who plays up that fact and has made a career promoting JPII as the greatest pope ever. I remain grateful for a whole lot of his writings, but GW’s JPII cult has become hard to take.

    • On what evidence do you make these accusations? That Mr Weigel wrote a substantial biography of Pope JPII and has spoken about it in numerous forums? I prefer to focus on where JPII’s formative years were spent: in a threatened Poland, in a Poland terrorized by the Nazis, in a Poland terrorized by the Soviet Union and Polish collaborators. Especially, what he did with those experiences and how he persevered in faith and solidarity.

  4. Might as well consider a couple other examples of this kind of controversy. The late writer David McCullough finally tired of clarifying that he was NOT an “historian,” but rather a “popularizer of history.”

    And then there’s Harry S. Truman who scrutinized every jot and tittle of his “Memoir”. Author Francis Heller writes of the team effort producing the “official” account of complex/controversial wartime events: “Then we just went through [the draft] word for word, comma by comma, semicolon by semicolon and it was really at these extended conferences that the President molded the book into the final form he wanted it in.”

    And then there’s the case of an obscure Augustinian monk who, 1500 hundred years after the fact, edited the wording of St. James to minimize the relationship between faith and works. That went well! And still ricochets about as der Synodal Veg spins hopelessly out of control into deep space. And then, too, there’s wannabe Pope Henry VIII and his official/officious and published Oath of Supremacy…One could lose one’s mind (or head!) trying to clarify this stuff.

    As some Brits might say about the free-flow use of the printing press, “rum thing, that.”

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