A memoir I never expected to write

When the second volume of my John Paul II biography, The End and the Beginning, was published in 2010, I thought I was finished with John Paul book-making. I hoped I’d done my best in bringing to a global audience the full story of a rich, complex life that had bent the curve of history in a more humane direction. I had tried to make a modest contribution to contemporary history by using once- classified documents from communist secret police files to illustrate previously-hidden facets of the communist war against the Catholic Church. I had kept the promise I made to John Paul at our last meeting on December 15, 2004: “Holy Father, if you don’t bury me, I promise to finish your story.”

But as I traveled the world speaking about The End and the Beginning and the legacy of John Paul II, I discovered that many people were less interested in the book’s analyses than in stories: stories that would bring a beloved figure alive again; stories that would help keep John Paul II close, rather than having him drift away into the remote intangibility of the canonized. And it struck me, on reflection, that this yearning was the 21st-century equivalent of the love for stories than once inspired the popular medieval lives of the saints. Thus perhaps there was more to be done, in fulfilling my last promise to John Paul II.

And here, too, there was a curious symmetry.

John Paul thought he was finished with poetry when, en route to the conclave that elected him pope in 1978, he wrote “Stanislas,” his poetic valedictory to Cracow. Then, at the end of his life, he discovered there were things he wanted to say that could only be said in a poem; the result was Roman Triptych. So like the man whose life changed my own and to whose story I had already devoted two large books, I am now happy to make a triptych: to publish a third panel in my account of the emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.

Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II (Basic Books) is very different than Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning, the first two panels in my portrait of John Paul II. Lessons in Hope is entirely anecdotal; hardy readers of the first two volumes will be relieved to learn that it contains nary an endnote. It’s all stories all the time, and all in bite-size pieces. My intent is that, out of these stories, an even fuller, more deeply-etched portrait of John Paul will emerge, for there is much this exemplary figure still has to teach us.

When he went on pilgrimage to Fatima on May 13, 1982, to give thanks for his life being spared during the assassination attempt a year before, John Paul II said, “In the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences.” What strikes us as mere happenstance or coincidence is, in fact, an aspect of divine providence that we don’t yet understand. That’s how he thought of his life, and that’s how telling the story of his life taught me to think of my own. Experiences I had, subjects I studied, professional positions I held, people who had a profound impact on my thought: much of this, seemingly random at the time, came into focus as remote preparation for becoming the papal biographer I never intended to be. Thus Lessons in Hope also explores how someone who never set out to write a papal biography ended up doing two volumes of just that, in what I hope is an act of thanksgiving for the providential guidance of my own pilgrimage.

Then there are the stories of getting my biographer’s job done amidst the often-sluggish realities of Vatican life: stories that wouldn’t have fit in Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning, but which now retrospectively illuminate, not only my own adventures in Rome (and elsewhere), but the accomplishment of John Paul II in getting the balky machinery around him to work as well as it did under his creative, courageous, firm, and collaborative leadership.

Lessons in Hope was great fun to write. I hope it will be great fun to read.

Photo credit: © L’Osservatore Romano

COMING UP: Speaker Ryan invites a social doctrine conversation

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CNN is not the customary locale-of-choice for a catechesis on Catholic social doctrine. But that’s what Paul Ryan, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, offered viewers of a CNN national town hall meeting on the evening of August 21. Challenged with a semi-“Gotcha!” question by Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Erica Jordan, who not-so-subtly suggested that Ryan’s approach to health care reform, tax reform, and welfare reform was in conflict with the Church’s social teaching, the very Catholic Speaker replied that he completely agreed with Sister Erica that God is “always on the side of the poor and dispossessed;” the real question at issue was, how do public officials, who are not God, create public policies that empower the poor and dispossessed to be not-poor and not-dispossessed?

Congressman Ryan then laid out an approach to alleviating poverty and empowering the poor that seemed to me entirely congruent with the core Catholic social ethical principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. Solidarity with the poor is a moral imperative, Ryan agreed, but solidarity should not be measured by inputs – how many federal dollars go into anti-poverty programs? – but by outcomes: Are poor people who can live independent and fruitful lives being helped by our welfare dollars to develop the skills and habits that will enable them to be self-reliant, constructive citizens? The moral obligation of solidarity is not met by programs that perpetuate welfare dependency.

Speaker Ryan has been a longstanding advocate of decentralizing and (as he puts it) “customizing” social welfare programs. That means abandoning one-size-fits-all attempts to address poverty and looking to the states, where a lot of the creativity in American government resides these days, for approaches that actually empower the poor, because they treat poor people as men and women with potential to be unleashed, not simply as clients to be maintained. Proposals to decentralize social welfare programs and give the states the funds necessary to conduct all sorts of customized efforts to empower the poor – crafted so that each “fits” the vast array of distinct circumstances we find in impoverished America – strike me as a sensible application of the social doctrine’s principle of subsidiarity. That principle, first articulated by Pope Pius XI in 1931, teaches us to leave decision-making at the lowest possible level in society, closest to those most directly affected by the policy in question. Paul Ryan thinks Washington doesn’t have to decide everything; Pius XI would have agreed.

The fact that poverty remains a serious problem in the United States after the federal government has spent $22 trillion dollars on social welfare programs over the past fifty years should have taught us all something about the complex problems of empowering the poor. No one with any sense or experience imagines that he or she has the silver-bullet answer to poverty in all its social, cultural, economic, and political dimensions; I know my friend Speaker Ryan doesn’t think he does. But unlike those who insist on measuring an official’s or a party’s commitment to the poor by inputs rather than outcomes (an approach that tends to instrumentalize the poor and render social welfare policy a cash transaction rather than a human encounter), Paul Ryan and reform conservatives like him are willing to face the fact that there is no direct correlation between magnitude-of-dollar-inputs and success-of-human-outcomes when it comes to anti-poverty programs. Inner-city Catholic schools (the Church in America’s most effective social welfare program) demonstrate that time and again: they spend less than the government schools and their students learn much more – and not just in quantifiable, standardized-testing terms.

America needs many serious conversations in this age of the demagogic tweet and the rabid, talk-radio sound-bite. One of them is about the scandal of poverty amidst vast wealth and the empowerment of the poor. That conversation is not advanced when, as happened after the CNN broadcast, smug partisans attack a serious Catholic public official by suggesting that he’s deficient in both his moral commitment to the poor and his understanding of Catholic social doctrine. Paul Ryan is no more the reincarnation of Simon Legree than Sister Erica Jordan and her fellow-Sinsinawa Dominicans are the reincarnation of Ingrid Bergman/Sister Mary Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary’s. Keeping that in mind would help foster the thoughtful debate the Speaker, and the country, would welcome.