“You have to decide.”

In writing Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II, one of my secondary intentions was to bury two urban legends: that John Paul II asked me to write his biography and that Witness to Hope and its sequel, The End and the Beginning, are “authorized” or “official” biographies. Alas, the straightforward refutation of these myths in Lessons in Hope hasn’t done the job in some quarters. So let’s try again:

First, John Paul II did not ask me to write his biography. The project was my idea and the Pope agreed to cooperate with it.

Second, Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning were neither “authorized” nor “official,” and they were vetted by absolutely no one.

And within point two lies a tale of much more importance for 21st-century Catholicism than correcting confusions about my work.

As you’ll discover in Lessons in Hope, I met with John Paul II in March 1996 to discuss the ground rules for my writing his biography and the history of his pontificate. During dinner in the papal apartment, I told the Pope that two things were necessary to make the project work. The first was that I had to have access to him, his associates, his friends, and some papers that might otherwise be locked up for decades. And the second? “You can’t see a word of what I write until I hand you the published book.” To which the 264th Bishop of Rome replied, “That’s obvious. Now let’s talk about something interesting.”

But why was it “obvious?” Many another world leader (not to mention churchman) would have asked for at least a discrete peek, and perhaps far more, before agreeing to cooperate with an author. Not John Paul II. He had spent his entire priesthood preaching and teaching moral responsibility; the book was my responsibility; so neither he nor anyone in his circle would be looking over my shoulder, red pencil or scissors in hand.

In his pre-papal life as a university chaplain, Father Karol Wojtyła’s signature phrase as a confessor and spiritual director was, “You have to decide.” As one of his friends and penitents put it to me, “He’d mastered the art of listening. We’d talk for hours but I never heard him say, ‘I’d advise you to…’ He’d throw light on a problem. But then he would always say, ‘You have to decide.’” Helping his young friends to see the good and choose it as a matter of habit – growth in virtue – was the Wojtyła pastoral method.

And it had nothing to do with a notion being bandied about by some in the Church today: that there are no moral rules applicable in all situations.

For while Father Wojtyła was helping his friends learn the art of moral discernment, Professor Wojtyła was working with his colleagues and doctoral students at the Catholic University of Lublin to get moral philosophy out of what a third-generation Wojtyła protégé called the “trap of reflection.” In that trap, there are no boundary markers for the moral life and moral choosing is untethered from any authority, be that authority revelation or reason: the moral life is always inside-my-head.

Wojtyła and his colleagues thought that such self-absorption led to moral vertigo, a dizziness that made for disorientation and unhappiness. That was bad enough. But the Lublin scholars also believed that the deconstruction of morality by forms of radical subjectivism had helped underwrite the horrors of the twentieth century. The roads to Auschwitz and the Gulag camps were paved with the shards of a once-solid moral edifice within which men and women had previously faced the challenges of moral decision-making with the aid of stable reference points, not by their intuitions or feelings.

So John Paul II’s insistence that my work was my responsibility was more than a vote of confidence in me, and a shrewd recognition that papal vetting would render Witness to Hope highly suspicious. Far more importantly, it was an expression of his pastoral and theological convictions about the human capacity for responsibility: with the help of grace, we can choose and decide wisely and well, if we open ourselves to the liberating power of the moral truths found in revelation and reason. And those truths are truths for all seasons – and all circumstances.

Those convictions need strengthening at all levels of the Catholic Church today.

COMING UP: Lessons in Hope: the final panel of the ‘John Paul II Triptych’

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Lessons in Hope: the final panel of the ‘John Paul II Triptych’

An interview with papal biographer George Weigel

A triptych is a picture, or more commonly an altarpiece, that appears on three panels, though meant to be understood as a single composition.

The term can also be applied to other types of art, as Saint John Paul II reminded us in 2003 with the publication of his triptych of poetry titled Roman Triptych: Meditations.

Now George Weigel, biographer and longtime friend of John Paul II, has completed what he refers to as the “John Paul II Triptych.” His newly released biography Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II (Basic Books, 2017), completes the first two best-selling “panels”— Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010).

In the following interview, Weigel speaks about what sets Lessons in Hope apart from the other two biographies of the Holy Father—it’s the stories!—and what must be done to ensure the legacy of John Paul II is not forgotten.

Q: How did you first meet John Paul II? Was there anything remarkable about that meeting that would have led you to believe that you were to have a long friendship with a future saint?

George Weigel: As I tell the story in Lessons in Hope, my first real conversation with John Paul II was in September 1992 when I presented him with a copy of my book, The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism, which he had previously read in galleys. I think he appreciated the book, not because I had made him the hero of the story, but because the book suggested a way of interpreting history that was parallel to his own: over the long haul, culture is the most dynamic force in history, not politics and not economics. In any event, he asked me to stay in touch, and I did, although I had no idea in 1992 where that would lead.

Q: You say that there is much still to learn from John Paul II, but is our fast-paced world already forgetting the legacy of Pope John Paul II? How can we counteract that?

Weigel: I find it astonishing every summer, when I teach in Cracow, that I have to teach Polish students the modern history of their own country and the Church’s heroic role in besting both Nazism and Communism. Regretfully, I’ve come to expect that lack of historical perspective from my American students, but that Poles don’t know this story tells you something about the fragility of historical memory.

The only way to counteract this problem is to, well, counteract it: preaching and teaching the magisterium of John Paul II as the authentic interpretation of Vatican II that set the Church on the road to the New Evangelization. Of course, I also think it would help if people read my books, too! Perhaps Lessons in Hope, which I think of as a very user-friendly book of stories and anecdotes, will help introduce this great figure to those for whom he is only a vague memory—and entice them to read “Witness to Hope” and “The End and the Beginning”!

Q: Denver is set to celebrate the 25th anniversary of John Paul II’s visit to that city for World Youth Day in 1993? How important was that visit for the United States, and for John Paul II?

Weigel: He loved it, and he loved to talk about it, because he had been told it couldn’t be done (not least by a lot of U.S. bishops), and as I tell the story in Lessons in Hope, he proudly proclaimed at our last dinner, when speaking of WYD 1993, “I proved them wrong!”

I’m quite sure that WYD 1993 was a turning point for the Church in Denver, which is now a model New Evangelization diocese. And I think it had a great ripple-effect throughout the United States. Various projects of youth ministry, including campus ministry and marriage preparation ministries, trace their origins to WYD Denver.

And then of course there are the multiple vocations—to priesthood, consecrated life, and marriage—that were inspired during those remarkable days. So the whole Church in the United States owes a great debt of gratitude to Denver, to Cardinal J. Francis Stafford (who had the courage to try what others said was impossible), and of course to St. John Paul II.


Photo courtesy of Ethics and Public Policy Center

Q: In the 1990s, we used to speak about the John Paul II generation, those young Catholics who were inspired by John Paul II to live authentically Catholic lives. Where are they now, and what has been their effect on the Church in the United States, and in the world?

Weigel: They’re everywhere, and you find them where the Church is living and vibrant throughout the world. The acids of post-modern relativism are very powerful, but wherever you find a living Catholicism, it’s a Catholicism that has embraced the magisterium of John Paul II and is living it joyfully and evangelically, sharing the gift that we’ve been given. The dying parts of the Church are the parts still stuck in the quagmire of Catholic Lite.

Q: For a young millennial who didn’t have the opportunity to live during the time of John Paul II, where would one begin in getting to know the Pontiff?

Weigel: Well, perhaps I could suggest beginning that exploration by reading Lessons in Hope! The whole intent of the book is to introduce John Paul in an accessible way, through stories.

Q: Is there one anecdote about John Paul II that you seem to tell more than any other?

Weigel: As I mention in Lessons, he once said to me, speaking of other biographies, “They try to understand me from the outside, but I can only be understood from inside.” It wasn’t an angry or bitter remark; it was almost wistful. But it was a powerful reminder that everything he accomplished, in the Church and in the world, was the fruit of his prayer, and I tried to keep that in writing the three panels of what I now think of as my “John Paul II Triptych”: Witness to Hope, The End and the Beginning, and now Lessons in Hope.