There are people in all our lives who have an outsized influence on us. Perhaps it’s a family member, but more often it is a coach, a teacher, or someone older in your community. These people touch us so deeply not because they teach us how to do things, but how to be more human. John Paul II was always that for me. He was elected pope just over a year before I was born and was the only pope I knew for most of my life. He was a influence on my entering seminary in the years leading up to the Great Jubilee. He was a priestly standard to which all of us aspired.
St. John Paul II was an inspiring figure for many throughout the world, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. For those of us who consider ourselves orthodox Catholics, John Paul II was a source of encouragement. He may have seemed to allow certain administrative matters to go unattended and had other issues with which people could take issue. But he offered us a comprehensive and deep explanation of the Second Vatican Council in the context of a profound spirituality and with intellectual rigor. That experience (and that of Benedict XVI after him) created a paradigm for the papacy that makes some wary of the different approach of Pope Francis.
To understand Pope St. John Paul II, you need to read three books, George Weigel‘s triptych of Witness to Hope, The End and the Beginning, and his recent Lessons in Hope. All three are masterful pieces of biography, but Lessons in Hope was a special treat–an immensely personal look at Weigel’s process of writing the other two books, and a series of stories about those he met along the way. It is interesting not only because of the glimpse of Weigel’s work as an author, but even more because you see how powerfully John Paul II impacted those around him.
Weigel is a consummate storyteller, and with John Paul II as the subject matter, the stories have great personal meaning for those of us whose lives were forever changed by John Paul II. Some familiar names popped up throughout the book, people who have helped or inspired me along the way (see Fr. Jay Scott Newman, for instance, whose homilies you need to hear on a regular basis and whose plan for evangelical Catholicism you need to study). Stories about bourbon-enriched conversations with Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and so many others round out the stories in Weigel’s earlier books on John Paul II.
Lessons in Hope is a welcome gift to Catholics today. The news is full of stories of people wondering what Pope Francis has in mind and questioning his actions. Lessons in Hope reminds us of the enormity of issues that popes must deal with, and the many people who can influence them for good or ill. John Paul II remains an inspiration even years after his death. My wife and I named one of our daughters after him. If you never had the opportunity to get to know John Paul II’s thought, Weigel’s new book will introduce you to his thought and his person in a way that no other book has. It’s a treasure, just as John Paul II was.