The summer reading list

George Weigel

Fifty years ago, prior to my freshman year at Baltimore’s St. Paul Latin High School, the late Father W. Vincent Bechtel introduced me to The Summer Reading List, upper-case. Father Bechtel didn’t fool around: he tossed his teenage charges into the deep end of the English and American literature pool and told us, in effect, “Start swimming.” And while I first thought of him as a holy terror, I now remember him as one of the best teachers I ever had – a guide to and through books that have remained my literary friends for life.

His judgment wasn’t infallible; assigning us The History of Henry Esmond resulted in my lifelong distaste for Thackeray. But Father Bechtel hit the mark far more often than not and to honor this golden anniversary of his introducing me to The Summer Reading List, let me offer a few suggestions that will take you beyond “beach reading” in these vacation months.

Jesus, the Apostles, and the Early Church, by Pope Benedict XVI (Ignatius Press): Joseph Ratzinger was an exceptional teacher, and his talent for distilling a lifetime of learning into material accessible to a less-learned audience was never on better display than in the Wednesday general audiences of his papacy. From March 15, 2006 through February 14, 2007, Pope Benedict gave a marvelously insightful catechesis on the nature of the Church through a series of weekly meditations on the most prominent personalities of New Testament Christianity. Read one entry a day for some summer spiritual muscle-building.

Seeds of the Word, by Robert Barron (Word on Fire): A highly placed U.S. churchman once described Father Bob Barron as “the American Ambrose;” the complimentary analogy to the great catechist of Milan, who brought St. Augustine to the faith, was not misplaced. As his Catholicism series made clear, there is no one, anywhere, who does a better job of making the Church’s proposal make sense than Father Barron. Now, in a collection of his short catechetical pieces, he picks out of our often-confused culture the bits and pieces of a lost Christian heritage, and makes these fragments the entry-points for advancing the New Evangelization by presenting Christian faith in surprising, charming, and disarming ways.

Ministers at War, by Jonathan Schneer (Basic Books); Winston’s War, Never Surrender, Churchill’s Hour, and Churchill’s Triumph, by Michael Dobbs (Sourcebooks Landmark); I began 2015 thinking it was impossible to mine the Churchill legacy for anything new, interesting, or insightful; historian Schneer and novelist Dobbs proved me wrong. Ministers at War tells the gripping story of how the man who certainly saved Britain and arguably saved western civilization managed his cabinet “team of rivals,” a coalition of men who had spent most of their interrelated, pre-war political lives at daggers drawn. Dobbs’ quartet of novels is lighter, but nonetheless compelling, fare. My two favorites were the first volume in the series, Winston’s War, which chillingly captures the appeasement mentality that has, alas, resurrected itself these days, and Churchill’s Triumph, which is in fact about Yalta and Churchill’s desperate attempts to play a weak hand in deciding the future of Europe with an aggressive Stalin and an incapacitated Franklin Roosevelt.

Dvorak in Love by Josef Skvorecky (Norton): I never met the distinguished Czech-Canadian novelist Skvorecky, who died three years ago, but we had an interesting correspondence and I greatly admired his work (as Father Bechtel would have, had he lived long enough to read it). Skvorecky certainly deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature more than many of its recent recipients, but his unrepentant anti-communism likely didn’t sit well with the politically-correct Swedish Nobel Committee. In any event, Dvorak in Love is a beautifully crafted, fictional re-creation of the great Czech composer’s three years in the United States, when he was introduced him to ragtime (which he admired) and produced the splendid New World Symphony and the luminous Cello Concerto, the latter inspired by a lost, unrequited love. Elegiac, tender, bawdy, and sharp-witted, Dvorak in Love is also a brilliant evocation of the Gilded Age: raucously in New York, and more gently in Spillville, Iowa.

COMING UP: The quiet hours of Leonid Brezhnev

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On first meeting Dr. Andrzej Grajewski, you probably wouldn’t guess that this mild-mannered Polish historian is one of the world’s leading experts on the ecclesiastical Dark Side of the Cold War: the relentless communist assault on the Catholic Church. But he is, and his expertise comes primarily from years of patient combing through the Bad Guys’ secret intelligence service files. Some of those files went up the smokestack in 1989 (or are still locked down in Moscow), but many are now available to scholars. Grajewski’s recent research in that often-sordid underworld raises some interesting questions about the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II on May 13, 1981.

What do we know with certainty about that affair?

We know that, by the fall of 1979, Yuri Andropov, the highly intelligent, ruthless head of the KGB (the Soviet secret intelligence service) had concluded that John Paul II was a grave threat to the Soviet system, both internally and in the external Soviet empire. And we know that the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party issued a decree on November 13, 1979, authorizing the use of “all available means” to forestall the effects of John Paul’s policy of challenging Soviet human rights violations.

We know that the assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, was a professional killer who somehow escaped from a Turkish military prison shortly after that 1979 decree was issued and received further training in a Syrian camp run by Soviet bloc intelligence services. We know that, after meeting with a Soviet intelligence officer in Tehran, Agca got into Bulgaria with the help of the Bulgarian security services and lived for two months in a luxury hotel in Sofia. We know that Agca’s finances were handled by a Turk, associated with communist intelligence services, who subsequently died in unexplained circumstances.

What we do not have is documentary evidence that all of this was done on the direct orders of Andropov, or Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, or both. But we do know that, as the Bulgarian spooks would have hesitated to change the brand of soap in their office washrooms without permission from Moscow Center, they certainly wouldn’t have run an operation against John Paul II on their own.

And now we know something else, thanks to an achingly dull, three-volume history of the schedule of Leonid Brezhnev, published three years ago in Russia.        Andrzej Grajewski plowed through these materials, concentrating on Brezhnev’s activities in April and May 1981 (shortly after Agca, by then in Zurich, met with several shady characters to complete the logistical and financial arrangements for the assassination attempt, which was set for May 13, 1981). Over the course of his reign as de facto head of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, Brezhnev did not meet all that often with Andropov, the KGB spymaster. But the tempo of their meetings increased dramatically in April and May 1981, as did the frequency of their phone conversations. Why this sudden intensification of contact between the Soviet chieftain and Andropov, at that precise time? Inquiring minds will wonder.

As they will wonder about Brezhnev’s schedule on May 13, 1981. That morning, Brezhnev met with a delegation from the Congo to sign several agreements. About 1 p.m., he came to his Kremlin office and worked by himself on documents; but the schedule does not indicate that he met with anyone that entire afternoon, nor did he make any phone calls. What was he waiting for? Was news anticipated? After 6 p.m.  — i.e., soon after Agca’s fired his shots in St. Peter’s Square — Brezhnev left the Kremlin for his residence in the Moscow suburbs. The next day he met in the Kremlin with Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, and on May 15, with Yuri Andropov.

Andrzej Grajewski’s careful but suggestive conclusion: “Does such a sequence of events prove that Brezhnev was informed about…the attack? We do not know that. Assuming that the idea of assassinating the Pope had arisen in the Soviet leadership, Brezhnev knew when it would happen. Of course, the records of [his] Kremlin schedule are not irrefutable evidence in this matter. However, they indicate that… May 13, 1981…was not a routine day for [Brezhnev]. His schedule shows that, during almost 18 years at the pinnacle of power, there was only one day, May 13, 1981, when Brezhnev’s attention was not absorbed by acting, directing, managing — but perhaps waiting for something to happen.”

Inquiring minds wonder.

Featured image: © L’Osservatore Romano