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John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father
by Peggy Noonan
(238 pages, $24.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Mary C. Walsh
Every so often, God graces the world with someone who radiates the love of Christ to the world to such an extent that he is easily recognizable as a living saint. Pope John Paul II was one of those persons. He was quite clearly a man chosen by God to lead the Catholic Church through the last quarter of the twentieth century and into the dawn of the twenty-first.
Like so many Americans after 9-11, Wall Street Journal columnist and former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan found herself thinking about the things that really matter and her faith in particular. She began to wonder, “Why do those of us who love him, love him? How to explain it to those who did not or could not?”
It is easy enough to think, “If God chose him, his life must have been easy,” but as John Paul the Great makes clear, he could identify with St. Teresa of Avila, who once remarked about the way her life was going amidst the work she was doing for God, “If this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few.”
Noonan opens near the end of Pope John Paul’s years, at an audience she attended on July 2, 2003. The pontiff was obviously suffering. She looked around the room to see people from every nation as she thought, “The whole Church is here.” She writes,
I always got the feeling with John Paul that if he could have narrowed down the people he met and blessed to those he loved the most, they would not be cardinals, princes, or congressmen, but nuns from obscure convents and Down syndrome children, especially the latter. Because they have suffered, and because in some serious way the love of God seems more immediately available to them.
“Everyone else” she continues, “gets themselves tied up in ambition and ideas and bustle, all the great distractions, but the modest and unwell are often unusually open to this message: God loves us, his love is all around us, he made us to love him and be happy.”
In fifteen eminently readable chapters, she converses with the reader about the many aspects of John Paul’s life. She touches on his early life of suffering in the loss of his beloved mother at the age of 8, his brother at the age of 12, and his father at 20. From the depths of his sorrow in early life, he chose God, which was not a direct route.
In the chapter “We Want God,” Noonan examines the consequences to the Communist world of the election of a Polish pope. “We want God!” the crowds thundered when the “Apostle pope” (Noonan’s nickname for John Paul) visited Warsaw in 1979. In “Men at Work,” she looks at the many diverse ways in which he sought to address the dignity of human work and the importance of the human person involved in it, arguing that neither capitalism nor communism acknowledges the importance of the human person in the workplace.
The chapter “Life” addresses the loss of concern in the modern world for this sacred gift. This issue was one of the primary focuses of John Paul’s papacy, as Noonan clearly conveys: “We must fight, he said. We must speak. ‘Silence in the presence of the enemies of a cause encourages them.’”
“The Great Shame” deals with the sex scandals afflicting the church. The pope, she writes, “was a Pole of another era who simply could not imagine—who had no category—for the idea of Catholic priests operating in a kind of protection racket in which they serially molest teenage boys and their superiors engage in a systematic coverup.”
John Paul truly was a reflection of God’s light in the world, whether he spoke on the value of every human life or the dignity of human work, or spoke to us by the example of his patient suffering in the twilight of his life. Noonan’s book was written, and should be read, “with the conviction that the great deserve our loyalty and that those who have added to life, who have inspired the living and pointed to a better way, should be learned from and lauded.”