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Old Man and the See

The last years of a historic papacy.

Jun 27, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 39 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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The End and the Beginning
Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy
by George Weigel
Doubleday, 590 pp., $32.50

Pope John Paul II, Mehmet Ali Agca

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.

When the Pope finally shuffled off into the villa, the third generation of Srodowisko, the small grandchildren of the original hikers and kayakers, followed him in a straggly line, “like the Good Shepherd and the sheep.”

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.

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