The End and the Beginning (George Weigel)

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.

Cor unum: a family creed

I just finished the Story of the Trapp Family Singers last night and had to recommend it to everyone. Obviously, the Trapp Family is known due to their popularization through the Sound of Music. But, this book–by Maria Von Trapp–is the inside story of what made the family great. It was not their musical talent, but the firm conviction that they were following and had to keep following God’s will in all they did.

This is a story of faith unlike many I’ve heard. It is a modern family dealing with the trials of modern life (and a World War as well) that comes out better for having toiled in the vineyard. The Trapp Family is a testament to the fact that love and faith can truly sustain us through life.

Beginning with her life as a postulant in the convent, Maria tells the story of being sent to the Trapp family, of falling in love with the children and then with the Captain, fleeing to the convent again to ask the will of God, and being told to follow where He leads despite not knowing the way. Maria found what many fail to see today, the beauty of a vocation to marriage. Most modern people think that marriage is the default and “vocations” are reserved for priests and religious. Not so. When Maria returned to the Abbey to ask direction from her Mother Superior, the nuns all gathered in Chapter and prayed for guidance from the Holy Spirit as to whether Maria was meant to remain with them. The answer: she was to get married and pursue holiness in her marriage and motherhood.

There would be a revolution today if more married couples saw 10% of what Maria saw in her vocation to marriage. Just imagine married couples who saw their union not as the result of mere human love, or the means to an end like having children and stability, but as it truly is, a vocation to love and serve one other person known from all eternity by God as your spouse. That puts things in a very different perspective, a divine perspective that Maria kept throughout her life and that she instilled in her family.

This is a book that every family should at least read if not own. It should be a constant reminder of what is possible to instill in a family–a sense of love, a sense of belonging, a desire to be of “one heart” (“cor unum,” the Trapp Family motto). There is a rich story under the patina that Hollywood applied. This book tells that story and does it with grace and humor. I heartily recommend it to you.

Letter and Spirit: Faith in Exile and Political Theology

L&S5

This volume of Letter & Spirit contains a fascinating series of studies on various aspects of political theology. It is not a light-hearted read by any means. But it is not a theologically-abstruse collection either. The articles in this issue–written by more popular biblical scholars, such as Scott Hahn, as well as theologians who are more at home in the academy, like Matthew Levering–are accessible to the theologian and layperson alike. Although the scope of the articles may be narrow for some (in some cases discussing very small portions of biblical books),any reader can develop through reading this periodical a principled approach to scripture that is consistent with the Magisterium of the Church and faithful to the biblical text. Let me give you an example:

Continue reading “Letter and Spirit: Faith in Exile and Political Theology”