Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II by George Weigel

(New York: Basic Books, 2017), 344

Lessons in Hope is the final panel in Weigel's epic triptych on the life of John Paul II, this last volume focused on his journey of writing the Pope's biography and filled with many moving memories of their time together.

Weigel emphases many of the same themes in the prior two volumes, especially John Paul II's views that culture is the principle driver of history over the long haul, not politics or economics (74), and that ecumenism is the greatest question of the third millennium (81).

John Paul II's fearlessness grounded in truth is also an important lesson for our current confused times:

The Pope's fearlessness came from his security in the truth...one is only free when living in the truth. (164)

Yet for all the biographical details and analysis of the Pope's thought and teaching in the first two volumes, one comes away from this final volume with the feeling of knowing something deeper of the man Karol Wojtyła. The recollections of conversations and meals together form an intimate portrait of this great saint. Especially appreciated are the glimpses of John Paul II's humor: "Eppur' si muove" (And yet it moves) (82), pointing with Dziwisz at Weigel and laughing at him as the drive by in the Popemobile (197), and the Pope's mock excited "I'm on page 240!" of Witness to Hope (232). These personal memories make the man—and his teaching—feel that much closer and more accessible.

The Church was blessed by the life of this great saint, and the world is blessed by Weigel for making him known and his teaching understood.

I spent 2018 through 2020 reading William Manchester's The Last Lion trilogy on Churchill, and 2021 through 2023 reading Weigel's trilogy on John Paul II. I have been considering the Edmund Morris trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt next, and Weigel's praise of that biography is a vote of favor.



A Dinner of Consequence

Summary: John Paul asked Weigel to write his biography in December 1995 over dinner with Fr. Richard Neuhaus, who said "This is going to change everything."

Coincidence and Providence

Summary: John Paul II said "In the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences", rather, what appears to be sheer happenstance or coincidence is an aspect of Providence we don't yet grasp.

  • Pope John Paul II (Szulc) suffered numerous defects, including a lack of interest in his intellectual life (9)
  • Weigel studied philosophy in seminary: "There are theologians who write as if they never studied philosophy at all—and it shows, usually in confusion. I was fortunate enough to learn as a young man that philosophy is the essential prerequisite to doing theology seriously." (11)
    • "For there is no way to understand John Paul Il's magisterium—his teaching as pope—without understanding the rudiments of his philosophical position and his general philosophical instincts. Nor is there any way to grasp John Paul Il's critique of certain modern and contemporary theologians without grappling with his philosopher's critique of the philosophical positions that underwrote what he thought were their defective theologies. This was obviously true, for example, in John Paul's challenge to those forms of liberation theology he thought dependent on a Marxist philosophy of history. But it was just as true in his critique of certain trends in post-Vatican II Catholic moral theology, which he thought false philosophically before they led to trouble, theologically and pastorally." (11)
    • "Philosophical anthropology—the idea of the human person that animates that theologian's work—has a lot to do with how that theologian does theology" (13)
  • Weigel's anti-communism shaped by The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Fire in the Minds of Men, and Main Currents of Marxism (15), as well as Darkness at Noon, Bread and Wine, and Man's Fate under Pick (20)
  • Writing: "You really don't know what you think about something until you try to teach it, persuade others of it, or engage others in it" (17) and "a good way to figure out what you really think about something is to try to write about it in a coherent way" (22)
  • John Paul II held the view that "theology is always an ecclesial discipline that learns from the Church and ought to serve the Church." (18)
  • Weigel received a "personal doctoral program" under Robert Pickus, who taught him how Catholicism thinks of peace as the product of law and politics: Augustine's tranquillitas ordinis, the tranquillity of order. Catholic just war tradition teaches that "working for peace" means developing legal and political alternatives to war (20)
  • Weigel's first impression of John Paul II ("shorter than I expected") was at the UN in October 1979, and his proper interpretation rests in his "locating human rights at the center of any humane world politics, religious freedom at the center of human rights, and a biblically informed notion of human dignity as the foundation of the whole edifice." (25)
  • Weigel was a speechwriter for many years for Congressman Henry Hyde (31)
  • His first book: Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace bib: there is such a tradition inherited from Augustine and Aquinas, it was largely forgotten after Vatican II, and reclaimed it can help shape discussion of international security. It was dedicated to Robert Pinkus and John Courtney Murray, S.J. (31)
  • Centesimus Annus bib:
    • The free and virtuous society is one composed of a democratic political community, a free economy, and a vibrant public moral culture (41)
    • Things that most engaged Weigel about the encyclical: "it's empirical sensitivity, its insistence on culture as the primary driver of history, its linkage of freedom and moral truth, its emphasis on civil society as essential to democracy, and its description of creativity as a principle source of wealth" (50)

New Worlds

Summary: John Paul II and the Catholic Church must have had something to do with the communist break-up, and he wanted to figure out what that something was.

  • Weigel describes dilapidated Moscow in 1990 as the result of communist rule and neglect, and then says: "Subsequent events demonstrated that the damage done by communism to Homo sovieticus was so severe that the kind of democratic political culture our group was sketching during conversations with our Russian colleagues couldn't achieve critical mass quickly enough to prevent a return to authoritarianism." → At what point does the moral decline of our culture render us similarly unable to uphold the democratic political culture we are blessed to have inherited? (47-48)
    • He also tells a story of a bright young Russian who asked them what a picture of the Last Supper was all about, for he had been "culturally lobotomized". John Paul II is right that "war was best fought with the weapons of a revitalized national culture and identity" (49)
  • Warsaw: "If there's anytying worse than having your capital destroyed by Nazis, it's having it rebuilt by communists and then allowed to crumble during decades of neglect." (58)
  • Dignitatis humanae bib: Religious freedom makes everything else possible: it puts a check on state power because it declares the inner lives of men and women out-of-bounds to state coercion. (60)
  • Wojtyla's WWII experience: people in touch with their own culture can never be completely occupied (62)
  • Václav Havel's The Power of the Powerless bib: communism is the "culture of the lie" (64)
  • The resurgence of Catholicism in communist Czechoslovakia as a result of the John Paul II effect (67):
    • Cardinal Tomášek, Archbishop of Prague, underwent a "transfusion of spiritual energy" under John Paul II and become touch as he became older
    • Cardinal Ján Cryzostom Korec, SJ "was clandestinely ordained a bishop in 1951 at age twenty-seven and conducted his episcopate underground while working as a warehouseman, elevator repairman, and night watchman—when he wasn't serving a dozen years in prison for his ministry"
    • Father Oto Mádr served 15 years in prison, a "very happy period of my life, with many conversions"
    • The Ostpolitik of Paul VI (who was in "torment" over the abandonment of the Church's bravest, 136) made matters worse: "The persecution of real Catholics never let up, and in fact intensified. Under the Ostpolitik, the faux-Catholic collaborators with the regime were empowered...What was left of the Church's institutions became, in effect, extensions of the state." (68)
    • "John Paul II's support gave the resistance such a new sense of security that there was even a revival in Catholic circles of that biting form of Czech humor embodied by the eponymous protagonist of Jarslav Hašek's novel, The Good Soldier Svejk." (69 bib)
  • Rocco Buttiglione "had the striking ability—matching only by Joseph Ratzinger in my experience—to listen to a question, think ,and then respond in complete paragraphs in what must have been his second or third language." (71)
  • John Paul II's idea of a "culture-forming Church that shaped public life through an educated and engaged laity: a Church that was not identified with any political party but that taught a vision of the free and virtuous society that animated all of society." (76)
  • John Paul II: "Ecumenism is the greatest question of the third millennium, and unity is more important than jurisdiction" (81)

The Witness, from Inside

Summary: The writing of Witness to Hope, before which John Paul said "They try to understand me from the outside, but I can only be understood from inside."

  • Weigel received the mandatum scribendi letter from John Paul II in January 1996, indicating the Pope's desire for him to write his biography (97)
  • He made a timeline: a seven-column, two hundred-page spreadsheet mapping out the Pontificate against world events (100)
  • Best decision in writing Witness to Hope was to not write anything for a year and half (103)
  • John Paul II "was an extremely good listener whose influence on others came from close, careful listening and then making a few comments that were crucial." (105)
  • Karol Wojtyla was "a man of constant reading who had a small desk and lamp installed in his car so there were no wasted moments on the road." (105)
  • "In a dozen years I never succeeded in getting John Paul II to call me 'George'; it was always 'Professor Weigel'" (106)
  • "The indispensable man in the pontificate of John Paul II was Joseph Ratzinger...between them, they gave Vatican II a comprehensive and authoritative interpretation" (111)
    • Without God, man makes no sense
    • They worked together well, thinking through problems over working lunches, and Ratzinger was comfortable enough to push back on John Paul (113)
  • John Paul II's writing is like walking down a spiral staircase, moving around the problem and going deeper, not in a linear fashion (116)
  • Weigel studied Curriculum Philosophicum—likely left over after writing Gift and Mystery—which gave John Paul II's account of his philosophical journey (117)
  • Sr. Emilia Ehrlich's comments on John Paul II:
    • The death of his family and friends: "It is almost as if he were being orphaned again and again" (123)
    • His generosity: "Fortunately, he can't give white cassocks away, or he would." (124)
  • John Paul II said that Pope Pius XI was "a great Pope" for his encyclicals against fascism, Nazism, and communism (128)
  • John Paul II was a skilled manager in how he deployed those who disagreed with him: Ostpolitik proponent Casaroli as secretary of state giving his more direct approach some cover, and Roger Etchegaray as a back-channel diplomat (140)
  • "John Paul rarely looked back on the assassination attempt of May 13, 1981. Cardinal Gantin, for his part, thought about it often, and gave a copy of the famous photograph of the Pope collapsing into Msgr. Dziwisz's arms at the moment he was shot to every new staff member of the Congregation. That image was, for Gantin, an icon: "That photograph has profoundly influenced me. Here is a man who has been shot, and is perhaps collapsing to his death, but with extraordinary serenity and perfect unity with God. He immediately began to say the Hail Mary." John Paul knew, Gantin observed, that "fear is what destroys man," that fear of the future "cripples us." And that is why, the cardinal said, he offered men and women the possibility of receiving God-so that they could live beyond fear." (141)

  • Cardinal Pio Laghi on liberation theology: "The spaghetti is good but the sauce is poisoned" (143)
  • Discussion of the implementation of Vatican II (and Sources of Renewal bib) on 145
  • "Until President Roosevelt had sent some staff from the Library of Congress to Rome in the 1930s to help organize the Vatican Library, books there were shelved by size and color." (149, !!)
  • Wojtyla was a man of synthesis and a connector of ideas: love and responsibility, person and act, etc. (161)
  • "One is only free when living in the truth, and John Paul was fearless because of his security in the truth." (164)
  • Wojtyla encouraged others to read the "dark literature" such as The Plague and The Power and the Glory (165)
  • Writing: "Books in progress are like children: a book has a kind of mind of its own, and it will push back against an author." (181)
  • John Paul viewed John Henry Newman as someone "who merits being a Doctor of the Church" (191)
  • Dziwisz said that Cancer Ward was the best of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's novels, and Weigel says that every high school student should read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (192)
  • "I'd been much impressed with the narrative drive of Edmund Morris's book The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and wanted my biography to begin with the kind of gripping prologue Morris had written." (194)
  • Górecki's music: Third Symphony, "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs", and Beatus vir based on Ps-34 (210)

Jubilee Pilgrim's Progress

Summary: Weigel becomes the "witness to the witness".

  • Waugh's experimental novel Helena bib: about the gritty reality of salvation history (238)
  • The Forty Days of Musa Dagh bib, a novel of the Armenian genocide during WWI, was recommended to Weigel as a "great long novel you think I haven't read" (247)
  • The lesson from Ostpolitik: playing by the world's rules makes matters worse (250)
  • "The etheral quality of those forested mountains [on the Franco-Spanish border] made it seem as if one could hear Roland sounding his horn through the mists. Franz Werfel and his wife, Alma Mahler, had trekked through these mountain passes to escape Vichy France after leaving Lourdes—where Werfel was inspired to write The Song of Bernadette." (251 bib)
  • Crisis and Reform about the Union of Brest (1596), which brought the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church into full communion with Rome (252)

Via Crucis

Summary: Karol Wojtyla was very much the Carmelite: the Christina disciple who conforms his life, not without difficulty, to the crucified Christ—and who finds in the embrace of the Cross the key that unlocks the door to the Father's house.

  • Weigel debated Father Richard McBrien (a John Paul II critic) at Notre Dame in 2001, but all the questions were for him and pro-John Paul II:
    • "Ted Hesburgh came up after the un-debate and said, "That was wonderful. It's exactly the kind of thing a Catholic university should do." I wasn't about to challenge Ted, whom I'd always liked, on his own turf. But to my mind the evening underscored the failure of the approach to Catholic higher education that he and Dick McBrien embodied—and that serious students, formed by the pontificate of John Paul Il, were beginning to reject. The students wanted to explore John Paul Il's magisterium in depth and get to know the Pope from the inside; they weren't interested in Catholic Lite." (258)
    • Similarly at Oxford: "All-in Catholicism as preached by John Paul II was a viable proposition, while Catholic Lite was of little interest in university circles, save among the tenured." (264)
  • Films to Watch: Catherine Wyler's Witness to Hope film (271)
  • Ratzinger said that the two key theological issues were radial moral relativism and born of skepticism and Christology, which needed to move beyond the historical-critical method and a renewal of moral theology (274)
  • Cardinal Francis George dismissed the synodal model: "Synodal governance is governance without headship; governance without headship is governance by committee; and Jesus didn't intend his Church to be governed by a committee" (276)
  • Weigel wrote a letter to John Paul II about the clerical sex abuse crisis in the United States (283), and wrote The Courage To Be Catholic to address the crisis (285)
  • Weigel's 2003 Christmas gift to John Paul II was Collected Poems, 1909-1962 by T. S. Eliot, to which he replied "Eliot: Murder in the Cathedral" (300)
  • "I had said in several interviews that I thought the Pope embodied the human drama of the second half of the twentieth century in a singular way, as Winston Churchill had for the first; Kissinger went me one better and said that it would be hard to imagine anyone with a greater impact on the entire twentieth century than John Paul II." (311) ^768973

Mission Continued

Summary: "Adventures aren't unusual with Karol Wojtyla.

  • New secret documents from Eastern Bloc intelligence services shed new light on Wojtyla's fight with communism, and were included in The End and the Beginning (324)
  • Involvement in his beatification process prompted him to frame the reflection on his Pontificate around the virtues (333)

The Church and the world may be heading for a difficult patch in the middle decades of the twenty-first century. Recognizing that is a requirement of Christian realism. But submitting to those difficulties as something inexorable and irresistible is a betrayal of Christian hope. To know both those things and to try to live responsibly in the tension between them is to have learned something important from Karol Wojtyla, Pope St. John Paul II. (341)

Topic: John Paul II



file:(2023-09-03-Lessons in Hope)

New Words

  • raillery: Good-natured teasing or ridicule; banter (89)

Created: 2023-08-20-Sun
Updated: 2024-03-31-Sun