George Weigel, best-selling author and biographer of Pope John Paul II, has written another book about the pope, but this one is different. His two-volume biography contains the extensive bibliographical data and endnotes that accompany a work of scholarship. The latest book, “Lessons in Hope,” is filled with anecdotes and memories.
“It’s all stories, all the time,” Weigel said.
In a talk about the book at the Sheen Center in lower Manhattan Feb. 28, Weigel said many people seem to have a desire “to know this great personality better,” and he hopes the book will satisfy that desire. It is subtitled “My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II.” The pope was canonized April 27, 2014, by Pope Francis.
Weigel, a Catholic theologian and author, is Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of more than 20 books including the papal biography; its volumes are “Witness to Hope” (1999) and “The End and the Beginning” (2010). “Lessons in Hope” (Basic Books) was published last fall.
Weigel spoke of having dinner with the pope in March 1996 and discussing how the biography project should proceed. John Paul, commenting on others who attempted to write about him, remarked, “They try to understand me from the outside, but I can only be understood from inside.”
Weigel said that is what he set out to do.
“To know John Paul II from the inside,” he said, “is to understand that everything he did as pope, either for the Church or in the world, including his pivotal role in the collapse of European communism, was the fruit of his prayer. This is a man who prayed things into being.” The pope’s “best hour,” he said, was the one he spent in private prayer in the papal chapel each morning before he celebrated Mass.
The pope also told Weigel, “If you want to understand me, you must understand my srodowisko, which Weigel defined as “an untranslatable Polish word which means ‘environment’ or ‘milieu.’” Weigel added that it is the term adopted by “a remarkable group of people”—mostly laypeople who met the future pope when he was a university chaplain in Krakow and they were students. The relationships endured, and Weigel met some of those former students and their families and saw their influence on John Paul II.
“While it was obviously true that he, as their chaplain, was forming them into mature Catholic men and women, it was also true that they were forming him—helping to form him into one of the most dynamic priests, and later bishops, of his generation,” Weigel said. He proposed that this “extraordinary network of friendship” was the basis for one of John Paul’s most significant initiatives: World Youth Day.
Another defining characteristic of John Paul II was “his willingness to push the outside of the envelope in terms of his conduct of the papacy,” Weigel said. He cited the pope’s friendship with Irina Ilovayskaya Alberti, who was born to Russian parents who fled the Bolshevik Revolution. Raised in Yugoslavia, she married an Italian diplomat. As a widow she became the personal and family assistant to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; later, she met John Paul II through a friend. She used to visit Russia, and she eventually became what Weigel called “John Paul’s secret agent in the Soviet Union” and post-Soviet Russia. On her visits there, Mrs. Alberti would quietly pick up information that she would relay to the pope.
It wasn’t the kind of thing most popes would have done, Weigel said, but John Paul “fostered that friendship…and deployed her in a way that kept him much better informed” about the Soviets and Russia than he otherwise would have been.
Summing up the man who was Pope St. John Paul II, Weigel observed that the pope taught “an enduring lesson”: the importance of resisting “the tyranny of the possible, the idea that some things are just the way they are, there’s nothing you can do about it…accommodate yourself to it.”
In other words, some things can’t be done, so don’t try to do them. Weigel observed that Pope St. John Paul II “didn’t live that way.” Instead, he envisioned what might be possible, and then he did it.
“That’s the lesson in hope,” Weigel said. “Don’t submit to that awful tyranny of the possible. Believe that moral conviction, applied with wisdom and prudence and a bit of nerve, can change things toward a noble, more humane future.”