By TERRY DICKSON
For The Catholic Week
MOBILE — In March 1996, George Weigel had just finished having dinner with Pope John Paul II in the papal apartment. As the Holy Father escorted Weigel out of the apartment, he said, referring to other papal biographers, “They try to understand me from the outside, but I can only be understood from inside.”
Indeed, countless books have been written about Pope St. John Paul II but perhaps no author has captured the essence of the Polish-born pope as masterfully as Weigel, the acclaimed papal biographer who visited St. Ignatius Church in Mobile on March 9 to share stories of his friendship with the Holy Father. Weigel’s talk was sponsored by the Society of St. Gregory the Great, a parish of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.
“What he meant by that, I think, is that other biographers had only seen the public personae but had not really come to grips with the man of faith, the man of intellect, the man of culture, the sportsman, the literary figure — the inside that made the outside possible,” Weigel said.
Weigel took the Holy Father’s words to heart when writing his two-volume biography of the Polish pope: the New York Times bestseller, “Witness to Hope” (1999), and its sequel, “The End and the Beginning” (2010), as well as his 2017 memoir: “Lessons in Hope — My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II.”
Weigel shared some of the qualities that are crucial to understanding John Paul II from an inside-out perspective.
“Every great thing that John Paul II accomplished as Bishop of Rome over a quarter of a century was the fruit of prayer,” Weigel said. “This was a very, very intelligent man. This was a very shrewd man, but, above all, this was a man of prayer who prayed his way into his decisions.”
As an example, Weigel cited the pope’s desire to establish a World Youth Day.
“When John Paul II proposed this notion of an International Catholic youth festival built around the Stations of the Cross, confession, adoration, daily Mass and the pope, the people around him said, in effect, ‘You’re crazy. This is never going to work. These kids live on a different planet,’ ” Weigel said.
“He prayed his way into that decision based on his own experiences as a university chaplain and, beginning in 1994, these remarkable gatherings have become one of the great markers of the global rhythm of Catholic life over time, an enormous source of religious vocations and wonderful marriages. He prayed his way into making decisions and that is something that I think all of us can take to heart and live out in our own lives.”
Weigel said John Paul II was shaped to a great extent by the “extraordinary cast of characters that surrounded him and that he deliberately gathered around him.”
“Long before ecumenical theology, Fr. Karol Wojtyla was living what is referred to in ecumenical theology as a mutual exchange of gifts,” Weigel said.
“The best example of that is the young people that he gathered around himself as a university chaplain in the late 1940s and early 1950s in Krakow, (Poland). These young people became his closest friends for the rest of his life. So here is this extraordinary priest, scholar, bishop and pope who has deliberately surrounded himself with laypeople who were, as one of them put it to me, ‘an experimental field for his ideas,’ but who also taught him things and from whom he was happy to learn things.”
Weigel said the genesis of World Youth Day actually sprung forth from Fr. Wojtyla’s earlier collaboration with the young people at the university.
“That openness to a wide range of characters had an enormous impact eventually on the life of the whole Church,” he said.
Weigel also touched on John Paul II’s “willingness to push the outside of the envelope, to be a man of constant conversation and his permanent openness.”
He also described John Paul II as a “happy warrior” who had “an extraordinary pastor’s heart.”