A Pope for Our Times by Kent R. Hill

A Pope for Our Times

Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II
by George Weigel
New York: HarperCollins, 1999
(992 pages; $35.00, cloth)

reviewed by Kent R. Hill

“It is when night envelops us that we must think of the breaking dawn, that we must believe that the Church is reborn each morning through her saints.”
—Pope John Paul II, Rheims, 1996 1

Who is John Paul II? The images are so starkly different.

The buoyant, open pope with his broad smile, at his prime, on the front of George Weigel’s Witness to Hope, and the painfully bent and shuffling papal image drifting across our TV screens in recent months. There is, after all, a presumption among many that wrinkles and a reactionary disposition go together.

How could the same pope in September 2000 canonize both the forward-looking Pope John XXIII, the architect of the “progressive” Vatican II, and the “anti-modernist” Pope Pius IX? How could a pope with lifelong Jewish friends and an impressive record of helping reconcile the church with the Jewish people canonize a pope about whom questions have been raised regarding his attitudes towards the Jewish people? How do we accurately understand the present pope? Never mind that both popes had a reputation for deep piety and that the process of canonization for Pius IX began over a century ago.

No pope has done so much to break down the walls that divide Christians or been so effective in engaging non-Christians in modern times, and yet in August 2000, so the national pundits tell us, a document was issued by the Vatican that allegedly moves the Catholic Church away from the openness of Vatican II and towards an intolerant and narrow view of all others.

A lengthy review of Dominus Iesus (Lord Jesus)2 in The Boston Globe charged that the John Paul II-approved Declaration shifts the Roman Catholic Church back in the direction of “pre-Vatican II triumphalism.”3 The reviewer pontificates that the new document reflects a “fortress mentality,” promotes “religious imperialism,” and devalues Judaism.

In fact, The Globe readers had been exposed to a gross caricature of the document in question. Similar misrepresentations of the document appeared in print and voice media throughout the country, and they reflect a profound ignorance or outright prejudice regarding the matters under discussion.

A Definitive Biography

In light of this, it is all the more important for us to discern clearly the man behind the headlines, and the importance of Pope John Paul II for our times. This requires careful scholarship, fairness and balance, and an open mind. Fortunately, that is precisely what the reader will find in George Weigel’s definitive biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope—a nearly 1,000-page book that by the fall of 2000 had already sold in hardback more than 300,000 copies worldwide, including 120,000 in English.

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