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John Paul II’s legacy will last for centuries, says papal biographer

Workers in St Peter's Square prepare for Sunday's beatification (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope John Paul II deeply influenced generations of Catholics who knew him in life, but his most enduring legacy – his teaching – is something that will have an impact on the Church for centuries, a US biographer of the late pope has said.

George Weigel, author of the papal biographies Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning, said: “It’s going to be several hundred years before the Church really takes on board the breadth and depth of this man’s explication of the Gospel, and in that sense we’re going to be thinking, and arguing, about John Paul II for hundreds of years.”

Mr Weigel said that six years after the pope’s death his connection with young people continued to bear fruit in many ways: in priesthood vocations over the last decade, in women’s religious orders inspired by Pope John Paul and in renewal movements.

“I look at my own parish in suburban Washington and see young couples raising Catholic families, who all took some form of inspiration from John Paul II. And I suspect this is replicated all over the world,” he said.

Mr Weigel, who spoke four days before the beatification of Pope John Paul, said he had devoted some 15 years of his life to researching his two major biographies of the Polish pontiff. What impressed him, he said, was that the pope was an “utterly normal human being” who made himself completely open to the work of the Holy Spirit.

In that sense, he said, the holiness that is being recognised at his beatification is something accessible to all Christians. Throughout his life, he said, Pope John Paul was trying to figure out what God was doing in his life and in the world, and to respond accordingly.

“I think everything he did, as a literary man, as a philosopher, as a priest, a bishop, a statesman, a pope, grew out of his radical Christian discipleship,” he said.

“Very few of the billion Catholics in the world are going to have the range of talents that Karol Wojtyla had. Every baptised person has the opportunity to live a life of radical discipleship. And that’s our connection to him,” he said.

Mr Weigel noted that being a saint was not about perfection.

“It’s about living one’s life with the intention to do the right thing and making decisions based on one’s best judgment, without fear or favor. No pope gets everything right. John Paul II didn’t get everything right, he would be the first to admit it,” he said.

Some have questioned Pope John Paul’s beatification, saying he responded inadequately to priestly sex abuse cases that came to light late in his pontificate. Mr Weigel said that criticism was off the mark.

“The way to think about John Paul II and the priesthood is to recognise that he was a great reformer of the priesthood. The priesthood was in terrible shape in 1978 when he became pope; it was in remarkably better shape 26 years later. That’s the context,” he said.

“The pope, like frankly the rest of the Vatican, took too long in 2002 to find out what was really going on in the United States. But once he found out, he acted in a decisive way,” Mr Weigel said.