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"He Never Learned the Conventional Story Line of Modernity," Says Biographer

WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT. 29, 2003 ( As the silver anniversary of John Paul II's election approaches, Zenit turned to papal biographer George Weigel for his perspective on the impact of the pontificate.

Q: How will history view the pontificate of John Paul II? What kind of milestones will be remembered?

Weigel: I hope history will remember John Paul II as the great Christian witness of our time. Everything else he did to change the world and revitalize the Church flows from that fact. He truly believes that Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life. That's the conviction that animates his ministry as Bishop of Rome.

And that's the conviction that undergirded the most dramatic moments of the pontificate: the call to "Be not afraid" at his papal installation; his epic pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979, which changed the course of world history; his two U.N. addresses; his showdowns with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1983 and with rioters in Chile in 1987; his pilgrimage to the Holy Land during the Great Jubilee of 2000. That's also the conviction that runs like a bright thread through his teaching.

Q: What would you say have been his three greatest accomplishments?

Weigel: The great question for the Catholic Church at the end of the second millennium of its history was: Could the Church give a coherent, compelling, comprehensive account of its faith and its hope?

John Paul answered that question in the affirmative: through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, through his own magisterium, and through this remarkable capacity to make Catholic convictions "come alive" in history -- as in the collapse of European Communism.

So it all fits together -- the renewal of the Church and the impact on the world. It would be hard to identify three "greatest" accomplishments within that framework, but three emblematic accomplishments would be the Catechism, the June 1979 Polish pilgrimage, and the Great Jubilee of 2000.

Q: Given the geography, the history, the suffering of Poland -- could any other country have produced a John Paul II?

Weigel: There's no doubt that the Pope's singular experience in Poland -- perhaps the most intensely Catholic culture in the world -- had a marked impact on his pontificate. The Pope never learned the conventional story line of modernity -- that religious conviction is withering away, that faith in the God of the Bible is a thing of the past.

On the contrary, what Karol Wojtyla learned from the history of Poland and from Poland's witness under Nazi and Communist tyranny was that the Gospel is still the most potent proposal in history, in its capacity to transform individual lives and its capacity to change society.

Q: Some ecumenical councils -- such as the reform-minded efforts of the 15th century -- didn't succeed very well. After the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, could we say that John Paul II helped to save Vatican II?

Weigel: Vatican II was a council that didn't provide interpretive "keys" to understanding its teaching, unlike other councils. Other councils wrote creeds, legislated new laws, condemned heresies -- all of which provided "keys" to understanding the council in question.

Vatican II didn't do any of that. So it's been the task of this pontificate to provide those "keys": through the Pope's own magisterium, and through his completion of the work of several synods of bishops.

Q: The Holy Father credited the Blessed Virgin with saving his life on May 18, 1981. How has his devotion to Mary affected his pontificate?

Weigel: The Pope has constantly proposed Our Lady as the pattern of all Christian discipleship, and I think that's been his most important Marian theme.

John Paul seems to accept Hans Urs von Balthasar's insight that all Christian life is, somehow, formed in the image of Mary, whose "fiat" makes the Incarnation possible and is in some sense the beginning of the Church.

John Paul also insists that all true Marian piety is Christ-centered and Trinitarian. As at the wedding feast at Cana, Mary always points beyond herself to her son -- "Do whatever he tells you"; and because her son is both son of Mary and Son of God, by pointing us to him she points us into the heart of the Trinity itself.

Q: You mentioned in your biography "Witness to Hope" that some critics say John Paul II could have been even more effective if he had dealt more strictly, and frequently, with errant bishops and theologians. Whom will history vindicate: His Holiness, or his critics?

Weigel: The question of the relationship of the Bishop of Rome and the Roman Curia to the discipline of local Churches around the world is one that's going to have to be very seriously examined in the future.

It simply can't be the case that the Pope is the personnel officer for every diocese in the world, or the de facto co-chairman of every national conference of bishops. Bishops must take the primary responsibility for disciplining their brother bishops. And if present conference structures impede that fraternal correction, the conference structures should be changed.

The same applies to the disciplining of theologians. The Holy See has had to step in in several cases because the local bishops were reluctant to take action, or frightened of taking action, or incapable of understanding why action was required. Why does the Holy See have to carry the can -- be the "heavy" -- all the time?

By the same token, of course, I think a compelling case can be made that the Holy See could have more vigorously encouraged local bishops in their disciplinary duties. All of this, as I say, is going to have to be thrashed out seriously in the next little while.

Q: What will be the key tasks of the next pontificates?

Weigel: To continue the compelling proclamation of the Gospel, in the image of John Paul II; to allow the Church the opportunity to "digest" the rich magisterium of this great pontificate; to think very carefully about the challenge of Islamism and develop the capacity to distinguish between genuine Islam and radicalized, politicized Islamic forces; to devise new ways of relating the moral witness of the papacy to the diplomacy of the Holy See.

Q: If John Paul II could live his pontificate over, is there anything he would do differently?

Weigel: I don't think the Holy Father's mind works that way. He takes his decisions after intense prayer; he commits those decisions to the Lord; he knows he will render to the Lord an account of his stewardship.

That's how he thinks about what's happened in the past -- although I should immediately add that one of the most distinctive qualities of the Pope as a man is that he is so engagingly future-oriented. His question has always been, What is the Holy Spirit asking us to do now?


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