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The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II: The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.



Pope John Paul II: The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy

WRITTEN BY George Weigel

PUBLISHED BY Doubleday, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-38552-479-7, Hardcover, pp. 608; PRICE: $37.50CDN

To order please contact your local bookstore

On October 16, 1978, the day that a relatively obscure Polish Cardinal named Karol Wojtyla stepped onto St. Peter's square and announced himself as Pope John Paul II, the greatest living Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn was living in exile in Cavendish, Vermont. Informed that a Pole, a man with firsthand experience of communism, had just been chosen to lead the world's oldest and largest Christian church, Solzhenitsyn said: "It's a miracle! It's the first positive event since World War 1 and it's going to change the face of the world"

How right he was! Now Solzhenitsyn and John Paul 11 are both dead, but each man irrevocably altered the course of history: Solzhenitsyn, by his heroic witness to truth amidst the freezing darkness of the Gulag Archipelago; and Karol Wojtyla--"a man from a far country" as he called himself--over the next 27 years of his Papacy.

George Weigel is the Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Centre in Washington, D.C.; he is a leading authority on Catholic matters and the author of the definitive (and bestselling) 1999 biography: Pope John Paul II: Witness to Hope. Weigel has now returned to this subject to describe: The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II, the Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, and the Legacy (Doubleday, 2010).

After the Berlin Wall crumbled and the Soviet Empire imploded, the extent of the communist conspiracy mounted against the Pope gradually came to light. Weigel has combed through secret police archives--from the KGB, the East German Stasi, and the Polish SB; at one time approximately 400 agents were devoting themselves full-time to bringing down the successor to St. Peter. Why? Because the Communists calculated (rightly) that he was the greatest threat to their continued existence.

The May 13, 1981 assassination attempt by a Turk, Mehmet Ali Agca (a Bulgarian secret police operation), was only their most obvious effort. It is sad to read here that subversion had assistance even from inside the Vatican, including high Church officials, who were active police informants. Weigel names names. Through it all the Polish Pope, and his inner circle--including the present Pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger--were immovable, the impregnable rock against which these waves of malignant conspiracy crashed and broke.


The middle section of Weigel's book focuses on the events culminating in the Great Jubilee Year, 2000. These events included the Pope's pilgrimages to Jerusalem and to historic sites associated with Abraham and Moses; the year long vocational celebrations; the preparation for publication in English of the Catechism of the Catholic Church; the Lenten introduction of Divine Mercy devotions; the emphasis on cleansing the conscience of the Church and seeking forgiveness for past sins; perhaps most important, the phenomenon that became World Youth Day.

In the year 2000 World Youth Day was celebrated in Rome, with more than two million pilgrims needing accommodation in the eternal City (including fifteen young people billeted at the Pope's summer residence at Castel Gandalfo). In his closing mass, the Pope told the young:

"It is Jesus in fact you seek when you dream of happiness; he is waiting for you when nothing else satisfies you; he is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is he who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is he who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is he who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity."

The final years (2002-2005) were years in which John Paul II provided the world with a visual lesson in the redemptive possibility of suffering. Weigel aptly calls this "a pilgrim journey through a darkening valley." With his mind still sharp, the Pope's body increasingly resembled a calcified shell, his face a mask, almost bent double, his limbs trembling and no longer responsive to his control, his speech mangled and sometimes unintelligible, and his "clear blue eyes [that] spoke of the pain at what his body had done to him. Yet they also spoke silently of suffering borne in faith and of the abandonment of self to the will of God." One Vatican reporter, John Allen, wrote at the time of the Pope's "transformation from 'the supreme pastor of the Catholic Church' (the Canon law phraseology) into a living symbol of human suffering, in effect, an icon of Christ on the cross."

In the late afternoon of April 2, 2005 the Pope lay dying in his Vatican apartment. Hearing the chanting of young people keeping vigil below, he signaled to an attendant that he had a message to convey to them: "I have sought you out. Now you have come to me. I thank you." Just before 7pm an attending Sister, Sister Tobiana, placed her head next his mouth and heard him whisper: "Let me go to the Father's house." The Pope then slipped into a coma; two hours later heart monitors disclosed that his strong Polish heart had ceased to beat.

Of Pope John Paul II's legacy, it is much too early to say, although Weigel devotes the last hundred pages to this subject. Actually, it will take decades, perhaps centuries, to assess and comprehend the full legacy of John Paul "the Great"--and for once in our tawdry times, this encomium is deserved.

Of his pivotal role in the defeat of communism, readers will recall that Joseph Stalin once sneered: "The Pope? And how many divisions does he have?" American columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote: "Stalin could only have said that because he never met John Paul II. Within ten years of his elevation to the Papacy, John Paul had given his answer to Stalin and to the ages: More than you have. More than you can ever imagine."

John Paul II's spiritual legacy is that he was a faithful priest, a courageous Bishop, a prophetic Pope, and everywhere and at all times a witness to hope.

Ian Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at the University of Western Ontario.
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Author:Hunter, Ian
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2011
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