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The Enduring Legacy of Pope John Paul II

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By Katrina J. Zeno
(originally published in Franciscan Way, Summer 2001)

The following is drawn from a lecture given at Franciscan University in April of 2001 by papal biographer, George Weigel. He spoke about writing "Witness to Hope" and the meaning of John Paul II's papacy.

"Most writers try to understand me from the outside," Pope John Paul II said to writer George Weigel as the two paused outside his papal apartment, "but I can only be understood from the inside."

George Weigel didn't need any further encouragement. The two had just finished discussing the ground rules for a papal biography in which George had requested ready access to the holy father, his friends, associates, and restricted materials. He also insisted that the holy father not see a word of the book until it was finished. "That's obvious," the pope said in reply. "Now let's talk about something interesting."

And talk they did over the course of the next 18 months. During that time, George collected 10,000 pages of documentation, interviewed Karol Wojtyla's teachers, classmates, friends, and colleagues in Poland and Rome, and deepened his conversation with Pope John Paul II, poet, teacher, and priest.

"The best decision I made was to write nothing for 1 ˝ years," George said. "I'd been writing so much about the pope that I thought my nose was pressed too close to the window. I needed to step back and get a clearer picture."

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The picture that began to emerge was a fascinating combination of human qualities: John Paul II as a contemplative and a sportsman, as a priest and an intimate friend of the laity, as a literary scholar and an analytical writer, as a man with a deep interior life and a fun-loving, human being. "The range of qualities in this one life is remarkable," George said. "There have been mystics in the church before, but rarely ones who combined mysticism with a profound interest in contemporary philosophy and a robust sense of humor. You can't image going down to the local pizzeria with St. John of the Cross, but you can imagine going with John Paul II."

The greatest challenge in writing the pope's biography was how to tell the story chronologically while including the ideas and convictions that shaped the 264th pope. To solve this problem, George begins the complex story with a prologue entitled, "The Disciple."

"That's who Karol Wojtyla is at the deepest level of his person," George explained. "He is a Christian disciple so thoroughly convinced of the Truth that the Church bears in history that this conviction shapes his life 24 hours a day."

It also shaped the opening line of his first papal encyclical, The Redeemer of Man, where Pope John Paul II proclaimed: "Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of Man, is the center of the universe and of history." It is this conviction that George Weigel attempts to present "from the inside" by digging into the deeper meaning of John Paul II's words and actions.

"Every encounter John Paul II has with a person, whether it's Mikhail Gorbachev or the Italian Association of Hairdressers, all happens within the horizon of this life-shaping conviction," George said. "Whether the pope is acting liturgically, administratively, pastorally, or as a teacher, he is a Christian disciple witnessing to Jesus Christ.

Scaling the pope's ideas and convictions down to a portable size kept George writing for 11 months: 25 pages a day, 7 days a week. Using a self-constructed outline of 160 pages, he typed away at his computer beneath his two favorite icons: the White Crucifixion of Marc Chagall and the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. Finally, in November of 1998, the first draft of 2200 pages was finished.

"Throughout the entire project I had the tremendous sense this was exactly what I was suppose to be doing at this moment in my life," George said. "It was what everything else I had done before was pointing to."

That everything else included his studies in philosophy and theology, serving as president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, co-founding an academic summer institute in Poland, and authoring The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism. In the latter book, George was one of the first writers to demonstrate John Paul II's pivotal role in communism's collapse. It was this book that caught the pope's attention in 1992, resulting in an invitation to meet the Holy Father personally. "The pope was intrigued by my analysis," George said, "not because I lifted up his role, but because I lifted up the role of the human spirit, of moral power, in the collapse of communism."

This keen insight into the human spirit along with his ability to synthesize large amounts of information helped prepare George for the daunting task of writing the pope's biography. Three and a half years later, his research and writing culminated on September 26, 1999, when George presented the holy father with the 992-page biography. "The first thing the pope did was weigh the book in his hand. Then he weighed it again," George told the amused crowd. "I think he was amazed at the size."

Since not everyone has time to read the lengthy biography, George graciously condensed John Paul II's monumental papacy into 10 enduring achievements for his audience (see below).

"Taken together, these 10 achievements make it plausible to argue that this pontificate has been the most consequential since the 16th century and the counter-reformation," George stated. "What a great thing to have lived at the same time and to have shared this piece of the galaxy with this great soul."

And thanks to papal biographer George Weigel, we not only share this piece of the galaxy with Pope John Paul II, but we can understand him from the inside.

The 10 Enduring Achievements of Pope John Paul II according to papal biographer George Weigel:

1) Returning the papacy to its evangelical roots. Because of John Paul II's constant witness of discipleship, the Church and the world no longer think of the pope as manager and CEO of Roman Catholic Church, Inc., but as an evangelist, pastor, witness, and defender of basic human rights.

2) Securing the legacy of Vatican II. By repeatedly developing Vatican II's theological insights in his encyclicals and apostolic letters, John Paul II positioned the Council as an epic spiritual event aimed at the conversion of the modern world rather than a four-year argument over internal church politics.

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3) Igniting the collapse of communism. John Paul II's pivotal role in communism's collapse was accomplished not as a statesman craftily moving pieces around the European chess board, but as a pastor determined to speak the truth, lift up and defend human rights, and demonstrate that culture runs the world, not politics.

4) Clarifying the challenges facing a free society. Through his social encyclicals, John Paul II insisted that democracy and the free economy are not machines that can run by themselves, but they are only as virtuous and just as the people who participate in them.

5) Repositioning ecumenism in the heart of Catholicism. By engaging Anglicans, Lutherans, Orthodox, and evangelical Protestants in ongoing dialogue, John Paul II moved the quest for unity to the center of the Catholic agenda, and insisted on a unity in creed, ministry, and around the common bread and cup.

6) Renewing Catholic-Jewish relations. John Paul II's personal dialogue with Jewish leaders, his visit to the Holy Land, and the completion of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel have opened the possibility of a religiously focused Jewish-Catholic conversation in the third millennium.

7) Redefining interreligious dialogue. By calling world leaders together in Assisi for the World Day of Prayer for Peace, the pope set a new example of how to hold firmly to one's own religious convictions while respectfully engaging the deepest convictions of others. In doing so, he showed the world that even though they couldn't pray together, people of different faiths could "be together to pray."

8) Responding to the sexual revolution. By using his Wednesday audiences to present a catechesis on the Theology of the Body, John Paul II has left us a rich and complex set of reflections that reimage marital love as an icon of the interior life of the Trinity and the human person as made for union and communion through a sincere gift of self.

9) Commissioning the new Catechism of the Catholic Church. Through this bold project, John Paul II answered liberalism's denial of objective truth and its neutralizing of church doctrine by presenting Christian Truth in a comprehensive and coherent way.

10) Changing countless lives. John Paul II's personal holiness and his summons to live without fear, which is so transparent in his life, has inspired millions of men and women, young and old, in a variety of historical circumstances for over 20 years - and continues to do so.


Katrina J. Zeno is a conference and retreat speaker for Women of the Third Millennium on the thought of Pope John Paul II


Women of the Third Millennium OH, US
Katrina J. Zeno - Founder, President, 740 282-9062



John Paul II, Pope, Katrina Zeno

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