If authors were baseball players, everyone would want George Weigel on his team. He would have the highest batting average in the Major Leagues, hitting doubles and triples with the greatest of ease. And with The End and the Beginning, Weigel has hit another grand slam, a fitting afterword to his masterpiece, Witness to Hope. But The End and the Beginning is more than an appendix to Weigel’s magnum opus. It is a classic work in its own right, a penetrating and insightful reflection on John Paul II’s life and final years.
Weigel begins his work by placing John Paul II’s pontificate, and priesthood, in the larger context of the second half of the 20th Century. At a time when much of the Catholic world was in chaos–or at least confusion–after the Second Vatican Council, Karol Wojtyla became a calming force in Poland, implementing the Council’s directives gradually through diocese-wide catechesis. The university professor turned pontiff continued and extended that focus throughout his pontificate.
But John Paul’s effectiveness as a teacher or pope was almost thwarted by the efforts of communist forces. Weigel’s first half of the book is the equivalent of a page-turning mystery novel. Except that it’s true. With access to previously unavailable documents from various communist sources, Weigel tells an amazing story of John Paul II’s confrontation with and triumph over communism.
John Paul II’s battle with communism was a kind of warfare previously unseen. His plea for “solidarity” was “far more dangerous.” “Father Karol Wojtlya’s sharp mind, spiritual depth, openness to others, and insistence on personal moral responsibility . . . created zones of freedom in which the students who became his friends could forge their own decisions to live as serious Christians.” (42) Serious Christians could not stand idly by as the communists enacted a regime in which the person was a commodity. Serious Christians knew that persons had an intrinsic value that they had to preserve against all odds.
Those experiences of living and studying under communist control provided a gauntlet for the future pope and forced him to develop pastorally, intellectually, and in every other way. The years of formation gave John Paul II the strength and conviction to proclaim, shortly after being chosen as pope:
Be not afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power. Help the Pope and all who wish to serve Christ and with Christ’s power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind.
Be not afraid. Open the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, and vast fields of culture, civilization, and development.
Be not afraid. Christ knows “what is in man.” He alone knows it . . .
I ask you . . . I beg you, let Christ speak to [you]. He alone has words of life, yes, of eternal life. (101-02)
This fearless proclamation of the Gospel guided John Paul II to the heights of political diplomacy–openly and behind the scenes–and guided his personal struggles in the face of disease and bodily fatigue.
The second half of the book discusses John Paul II the man, and the personal struggles he had in leading the Church through the post-Council confusion, clerical abuse, the rampant spread of secularism, and his own failing health. This he did with grace and a deep confidence that the Truth would prevail and bear fruit.
Being a member of the “John Paul II Generation” myself, I was touched by the depth to which Weigel penetrated into John Paul II as a man. Many priests attribute their priestly call to John Paul II’s example. But even for us laypeople, he is a tremendous example of a committed Christian and what we are all called to be. He had a
great capacity for friendship, and the time and energy he invested in others, testified to his determination to live justly in his relationships with others. Everyone who ever worked for, or with, him remarked on his probity, his fairness, and his seemingly inexhaustible capacity to let others have their say. He was a man of his word who kept his promises to the end, even when doing so cost him aggravation, even personal pain. (421)
John Paul II was certainly an example of a committed Christian, but he also showed us how to be a modern-day prophet. Realizing that “it was no longer possible to transmit the faith by cultural osmosis,” John Paul II led the Church “to reimagine itself as robustly evangelical and culturally assertive, [to] engage modernity without surrendering to it, and [to] confront the default secularism of [modern] high culture with a nobler vision of the modern world and its possibilities.” (439) As recently argued, this effort cannot be left to the clergy. Nor would John Paul II think the clergy could do it all–or want them to. Rather, John Paul II made a point to exalt the dignity and vocation of what I call “ordinary Christians,” those of us in the trenches–in school or the workplace who strive to live their faith in a way that is attractive to those around them. John Paul II was attractive to so many people because he challenged us to be better people, better Catholics. We need to have the same willingness to be faithful witnesses to the Gospel in every facet of our lives.
In the end, “John Paul II did not ask of his young followers anything that he had not asked of himself . . . he lived the strong love and challenge of genuine fatherhood, and the youth of the world responded. Let us now respond as John Paul II asked us to do beginning almost 35 years ago. Let us be the voice of the new evangelization in our own spheres of influence, and let us ask Blessed John Paul’s intercession to further and perfect our work.
This review was written as part of The Catholic Company‘s reviewer program. For a fair and honest review, the author was given a complimentary copy of the book. To learn more about The End and the Beginning, go to The Catholic Company.