Jonathan V. Last reviewed George Weigel's latest biography of Pope John Paul II , The End and the Beginning, for our summer books issue. Weigel's newest volume sheds light on the last years of the beloved figure, providing touching stories as well as fascinating new information about the Pope's handling of the Cold War:
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.”
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