Old Man and the See
The last years of a historic papacy.
Jun 27, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 39 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
The End and the Beginning
Pope John Paul II and his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, 1983
Gamma Keystone / Getty Images
With his beatification last month, John Paul II passed further into the pages of history. But unlike most historical figures, the Polish pope left a legacy that is still very much alive. Theologians are still grappling with his writings; the Roman Catholic church is only now being infused with the generation of priests who were called during his pontificate; the world has not yet finished the conversation he began concerning the dignity of the human person. The book on this remarkable man remains quite unclosed.
George Weigel’s latest volume helps us to continue leafing through the pages. His first book about John Paul II, Witness to Hope (1999), may well be the most important biography of the 20th century. Not content with that little trick, Weigel picked up where he left off: The End and the Beginning is actually three books about John Paul in one, all of which allow us to reflect more deeply on the pope’s legacy.
In one section, Weigel gives a biographical account of the final six years of John Paul’s life. (In a perfect world, this would also be added to future editions of Witness to Hope.) The pope’s declining years were suffused with suffering. Even as Parkinson’s disease racked his body, he was transformed, as Vatican reporter John Allen put it, from “ ‘supreme pastor of the Catholic Church’ . . . into a living symbol of human suffering, in effect, an icon of Christ on the cross.” He was, in his own words, “a sick man among the sick,” living in service to God’s will with astonishing grace and demonstrating that human beings are not disposable, that each of us has inherent dignity, no matter our frailties or outward “worth.”
Weigel’s description of these last years is both comprehensive and engaging; his account of the pope’s death, unadorned and beautiful. But the most moving passage is a brief scene, a previously unreported episode from 2000. Before he became pope, Karol Wojtyla was a great outdoorsman, who often went hiking and kayaking with a group of lay friends in Krakow. The little circle of intensely close countrymen became known as his Srodowisko. In August 2000 the surviving members of the Srodowisko came to visit the pope at Castel Gandolfo, with their children and grandchildren. They brought with them a kayak, which they playfully set up in the courtyard—one last outdoor adventure with their beloved priest. The ailing, 80-year-old John Paul stayed up with them late into the evening, greeting everyone individually. At the end of the night, they sang the song they once did at the close of each day on their kayaking trips, and the pope bid each of them good-night, one by one.
Much, however, is taken up with darker tales. Weigel has trawled through recently uncovered documents from Communist state police—the Russian KGB, the East German Stasi, and the Polish Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa (SB)—to construct an account of the secret war the Communists waged against John Paul for 30 years. Karol Wojtyla was first brought in for questioning by the SB in 1956. He was a professor at the seminary in Krakow, and the police wanted to test his political leanings. He wisely kept the interview to theological matters. At the time, the authorities were infinitely more concerned with Cardinal Wyszynski, the Polish primate who was waging a one-man campaign against authoritarianism. Their obsession with Wyszynski sometimes bordered on the comical: During Vatican II, they compiled a document entitled “Memorandum on Certain Aspects of the Cult of the Virgin Mary in Poland” and distributed it among the bishops in an attempt to discredit him for his Marian devotion. The memo was written by STOLARSKI, one of the priests who became willing agents of the state. There were to be many others (some 270 of them) with names such as MARECKI and TORANO, Catholic clergy and laymen who agreed to spy on the church for the secret police.
After Wojtyla was made bishop in 1958, the SB took an ever-increasing interest in him. Given the codename PEDAGOG, he was put under constant surveillance, his residences bugged and monitored. In dossiers, the police determined that Wojtyla had an “unusual combination of intellectual qualities with those of an active, practical, and organized man.” This combination alarmed them, but they also suspected that his intellectual gifts made him soft. In 1962, the archbishop of Krakow died. The government reserved the right to veto his successor, and veto they did, rejecting every name Wyszynski and Rome put forward for a year. Finally, in the fall of 1963, the head of the Polish Communist party told one of Wyszynski’s aides: “I’m waiting for Wojtyla, and I’ll continue to veto names until I get him.” Surer proof of Providence would be hard to find.
The Communists believed that Wojtyla—a poet, philosopher, and intellectual—was a man of ideas, not power. They soon realized their mistake. When he was created cardinal in 1967, the surveillance of Wojtyla increased to Lives of Others levels. A four-page questionnaire was dispatched to every SB informant, agent, and collaborator who had ever run across him. Did Wojtyla smoke? What brand of cigarette? When did he shave? Who polished his shoes? How often did he go to the dentist? With each passing year the authorities grew more concerned about Wojtyla’s abilities as a defensor civitatis. Between 1973 and 1974 the SB seriously considered arresting him and charging him with sedition on three separate occasions.
The secret war continued into John Paul’s pontificate, with spies in the Holy See and agents constantly trying to disrupt his activities. During his homecoming to Poland in 1979, the SB created a special section to drive Poles away from the services and minimize the news of the crowds who came to see him. The operation, dubbed LATA ’79, was a failure: Some 11 million Poles—one-third of the country—saw him in person during the nine days of his pilgrimage.
In George Weigel’s hands, none of this history is a chore. His vivid accounting is, here and there, leavened with acid wit. In one passage, he recounts the death of Metropolitan Nikodim, president of the World Council of Churches and a KGB spy known as ADAMANT. Fittingly enough, ADAMANT died during a private audience with John Paul I, suffering a heart attack in the course of their interview. As he expired in the pontiff’s arms, his last words were, “I am not a KGB agent.” Weigel tartly observes, “But he was.” Explaining the Soviets’ plan to retrench after losing this asset, Weigel notes that the KGB issued secret order #00122, which bore the “gloriously Stalinist” title: “Measures to Strengthen Agent Operational Work in the Struggle with the Subversive Activity of Foreign Clerical Centers and Hostile Elements among Church People and Sectarians.” No wonder they lost the Cold War.
The funniest moment in this otherwise serious and excellent book, however, takes place at the outdoor Mass at St. Peter’s Square on October 22, 1978, where the newly named Pope John Paul II was inaugurating his service. The square was filled with visiting officials and dignitaries. The Soviet ambassador to Italy—a sly Party man who had some inkling of the storm gathering before him—leaned over to the president of Poland and remarked icily, “The greatest achievement of the Polish People’s Republic was to give the world a Polish pope.”
He was, perhaps, righter than he knew. And The End and the Beginning is an achievement, too. You cannot fully understand the man who will pass into history as John Paul the Great without it.
Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.