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by George Weigel

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HarperCollins Publishers
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The Definitive Biography of Pope John Paul II

Witness to Hope is the authoritative biography of one of the singular figures -- some might argue the singular figure -- of our time. With unprecedented cooperation from John Paul II and the people who knew and worked with him throughout his life, George Weigel offers a groundbreaking portrait of the Pope as a man, a thinker, and a leader whose religious convictions defined a new approach to world politics -- and changed the course of history. As even his critics concede, John Paul II occupied a unique place on the world stage and put down intellectual markers that no one could ignore or avoid as humanity entered a new millennium fraught with possibility and danger.

The Pope was a man of prodigious energy who played a crucial yet insufficiently explored role in some of the most momentous events of our time, including the collapse of European communism, the quest for peace in the Middle East, and the democratic transformation of Latin America. This updated edition of Witness to Hope explains how this "man from a far country" did all of that, and much more -- and what both his accomplishments and the unfinished business of his pontificate mean for the future of the Church and the world.


Editorial Reviews
The Polish Pope

The scope of Pope John Paul II's life almost exceeds the imagination. Born in 1920 into a pious Polish family, Karol Wojtyla experienced suffering early as his mother, brother, and father died before he was 20. A promising student, athlete (he skied until he was in his 70s), and actor, he had to cut short his studies and move his acting underground during World War II. To avoid the massive Nazi sweeps against Polish intellectuals, he took an arduous job as a quarryman. His theatrical troupe continued to risk their lives performing in sympathetic homes, changing venues frequently to elude Nazi suspicion. Wojtyla narrowly escaped the Nazis several times, once by praying in his basement apartment as Nazi soldiers searched upstairs.

Wojtyla's talent convinced his fellow actors that he was destined for the stage. But the death of his father and his horror at the evil of wartime Poland led him to seek spiritual guidance, and, after an internal struggle, he joined an underground seminary—a move expressly forbidden by the Nazis that, if discovered, would have led to his death. He continued his studies at work, secretly reading amidst the clamor of the quarry.

After the war, despite the Red Army takeover of Poland, Wojtyla was ordained as a priest. A rugged, athletic clergyman, he led yearly hiking and kayaking trips with groups of young Catholics (they called him "Uncle" to avoid Communist suspicion of his religious title), where they discussed religious issues in his beloved Polish mountains. A popular priest and lecturer, Wojtyla was named bishop at age 38. He began to be internationally noticed with his thoughtful, passionate contributions to the revolutionary Second Vatican Council in the early '60s, where bishops gathered to discuss the most sweeping reforms the Catholic Church had seen in centuries.

Quickly Wojtyla advanced in his position, rapidly becoming first Archbishop of Krakow and then Cardinal. On October 16, 1978, Wojtyla, in Rome to elect one of his colleagues to the suddenly vacant seat of the Pope, found himself named Bishop of Rome, the first non-Italian Pope in centuries, and the first Slavic Pope in the history of the church. In the announcement to the masses cheering the election of this foreigner with an unpronounceable name, Wojtyla endeared himself immediately by addressing them in their native Italian rather than the traditional Latin. Here he announced his new name: John Paul II.

The remarkable unfolding of the above comprises only the first half of George Weigel's comprehensive biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope. John Paul II's papacy would see the rise of Solidarity in Poland, the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, massive crowds for all of his international public appearances, and a nearly-successful attempt on his life. And the drama was not without its mystical moments: The day before would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Acga shot the Pope before an adoring crowd in St. Peter's Square, the Pope quoted the following, possibly prescient New Testament passage in his nighttime prayer: "Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour."

Weigel, a distinguished Catholic scholar and philosopher who has been writing about this pope for more than 20 years, has taken seriously the task of portraying John Paul II's complexities. The Pope's writings are carefully explained in the larger context of his life. Not content to merely describe the events in his life, Weigel delves into the realms of history, geography, and philosophy to help us get inside the Pope's story. Wartime Poland comes to life in his careful description; Wojtyla's grappling with his philosophical studies is charged with as much electricity as the sweeping drama of his Papal election.

Weigel also takes great care to describe the links between the man's life and his philosophy. Such care is crucial, because it is only through an understanding of the Pope's historical, philosophical, and mystical roots that we may understand the political externals of his papacy and his own moral choices. For example, one reason this Pope has insisted upon the dignity of work in his writings, Weigel argues, is that he himself experienced the travails of physical labor. And having lived through the issues of toil and struggle, of life and death—of clear good and clear evil—in wartime Poland, Pope John Paul II, though an intellectual, does not have the luxury of academic abstraction.

Weigel's grasp of complexity does not extend to his treatment of the Pope's detractors, however. A political as well as a spiritual figure, Pope John Paul II has excited passionate opposition even within the church. Even devoted Catholics are often wary of the Pope's positions on women, church hierarchy, reproductive freedom, and the role the Church is to take in political life. Weigel portrays these dissenters as, at best, misunderstanding the Pope's positions, or, at worst, deliberately undermining the truth of the Pope's words. It would have been interesting to have seen these dissenting voices engaged more directly; they are a genuine cry of crisis within the Church and deserve more than the dismissive paragraphs offered here.

Still, Weigel's painstakingly researched portrait of Pope John Paul II is an enormous accomplishment. The Pope's footsteps on the world stage will likely be heard well into the next millennium, and this book is worthy of its towering subject.

—Caitlin Dixon

Caitlin Dixon is a freelance writer and filmmaker who worked on a documentary on Pope John Paul II that recently aired on PBS. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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