St John Paul II was a sublime visionary, but had an Achilles heel

Pope Francis canonised John Paul II on April 27 2014 (AP)

George Weigel’s Witness to Hope was written before its subject was canonised, but that exhaustive biography vibrated with confidence that the day of universal recognition would be inevitable. Weigel has become something of a pontifical Boswell, and his third volume about John Paul II is like the last wing on a vivid triptych by Memling or Rubens. The first two books were analytical, while this one – Lessons in Hope (Basic Books, £25) – is a portrait more ruminative and personal, and not without humour. It may even be more valuable precisely for that. History is disserved by those who think that private asides and impressions are secondary to major dates and deeds.

Weigel’s classical theological formation and his own urbane humanism made him a good fit for understanding Karol Wojtyła, and it would seem that the Holy Father sensed the same, enjoying his company and table talk. Through that association, Weigel was able to perceive the pope’s sources and initiatives, beginning with his pastoral work in Poland.

Wojtyła’s Polishness was not something to be thrust aside when he became Universal Pastor, like some gnostic shedding of irrelevant skin. Poland was an icon of Christ in its heroic deeds and salvific suffering, far more than most nations. That land, with trembling borders but unflagging chivalry, was crucified over centuries, only to rise with valour when its people cried out in 1979: “We want God.” And Wojtyła was there to hear them.

Carl Jung spent considerable effort trying to explain a dimension he called “synchronicity”, commonly shrugged off as mere coincidence. For the Christian, that dimension is often Divine Providence at work, and it would be pedantic to think that Wojtyła’s early suffering and experience of socialised atheism were not part of a supernatural scheme to prepare him for the papacy. Weigel’s familiarity with Polish culture may be the most important theme in what he writes of hope.

Another subject for another day is how the theological dissidents and dilettantish revisionists who patronised Wojtyła and loathed Ratzinger burrowed into the cultural underground, suborning the media and academies, waiting for their moment which, if tenuous and fragile, they think had arrived. The geriatric modernists are breathing fresh air, and the test will be how long their moment will actually last.

With scholastic realism, John Paul II believed that, in theology, 2+2 = 4. He did not subscribe to a Hegelian synthesis whereby truth is what is left after “making a mess”. His Theology of the Body was of a vision loftier and more demanding than instruction in how to kiss. If anyone could express that even more clearly than Wojtyła it was Ratzinger, whose masterful articulation confounded all stereotypes of German obscurantism. John Paul evidently recognised that himself, which he is why he relied on him so much, and that may have been another instance of the wheel of Providence at work. Both of them were like Bunyan’s pilgrim contending against “dismal stories” but they did so without subjecting doctrine to casuistry, or condescending to rudeness and insults.

The way John Paul focused on the horizon may at times have distracted him from what was going on around his doorstep. His episcopal appointments sometimes were perplexing and his idealism beclouded his willingness to acknowledge abuses within the clerical system. My friend Fr Stanley Jaki once expressed to me his caution that phenomenology might be Wojtyła’s “Achilles heel” rather than the strength of his philosophical narrative. It is curious that such a sublime visionary should have been remarkably atonal in matters liturgical and artistic. His pontificate boasted no Borromini, and its cultural landscape was pockmarked with such offences as the Jubilee Church in Rome, the Divine Mercy Shrine in Kraków, Los Angeles Cathedral and the pharaonic John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington DC.

With John Paul II and Benedict XVI now distant if venerable echoes, and even censored in some quarters, we find ourselves now much like Bernard of Chartres’s nanos gigantum humeris insidentes – dwarfs on the shoulders of giants.

Weigel’s generous spirit hoped for the best when the Church’s present ambiguities and unprecedented confusions began. He is enough of an authority about hope to know that hope is sturdier than optimism. While his completed triptych goads the reader to realise what great things the Holy Spirit has done, it also makes us something like the men in their doldrums on the Road to Emmaus. But there is still the Lord reminding us that all these things had to have happened.

These are perplexing and even scandalous days for the faithful. But if Bernard of Chartres thought himself a mere afterthought and unworthy heir, his image of dwarfs on the shoulders of giants is radiantly depicted in the south transept window of Chartres cathedral whose glorious construction began just a few years after he died. That then vindicates hope as a virtue, more than optimism as a wish.

Fr George W Rutler is parish priest of St Michael’s church in New York City

This article first appeared in the October 20 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here