The saint's biographer talks about the pontiff's deep spiritual life and its impact on the Church

George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Centre, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies, is known internationally for his insightful and comprehensive two-volume biography of Saint John Paul II. To those volumes, Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning, he has added a third volume this year, Lessons in Hope, which he describes as “a kind of third panel in my John Paul II triptych.” Having recently read this book, many questions have come into my mind. Professor Weigel is happy to answer them.

Having concluded his biography proper, how did he come to write a third book? Weigel tells me, “When I finished the second volume of my biography I thought I had fulfilled the promise I had made to John Paul II at our last meeting in December 2004: that if he didn’t bury me, I’d finish his story, as my first volume had only taken the tale up to early 1999. But when the second volume was finished, five years after the Pope’s death in 2005, I discovered that people wanted stories and anecdotes that would make him ‘come alive again’. It occurred to me that a memoir of ‘my unexpected life with St John Paul II’ – my book’s sub-title – would help me finally complete the promise I’d made in 2004.”

Clearly, Weigel’s life has been hugely shaped and influenced by his association with the late Pope. I am keen to know how it has changed as a result of his role as biographer. He points out that the first quarter of Lessons in Hope is actually “the story of how someone who never planned on becoming a papal biographer became precisely that. John Paul’s conviction that ‘in the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences’ led me to look back on my own life in a new way; I began to see how things that at the time seemed random were in fact preparing me to take on the job.”

He reflects on his childhood, when in primary school he had prayed for the conversion of Poland’s communist leader in 1960; his trying to help foment a democratic revolution in Moscow in 1990; his university studies in philosophy and then theology. “Later they came into sharper focus as remote preparation for telling John Paul II’s life story from the inside out: from ‘inside’ his spiritual and intellectual life, to the ‘outside’ of his impact on the Church and the world.”

I note that in his book Weigel describes the late Pope as “a radically converted Christian disciple”: an unusual description for a Pope, I suggest. He responds with emphasis: “For John Paul II, everything began with discipleship. He was, first and foremost, a Christian disciple whose life had been transformed by his own friendship with the Lord. Everything else – his priestly vocation, his work as a bishop and as pope, his intellectual life, his impact on the world and the Church – flowed from that. That is why” he adds, “my prologue to Witness to Hope is entitled, simply, ‘The Disciple.’”

I mention to George Weigel that in his book he quotes the Pope as saying that the three surprises of his life were his election as Pope, the assassination attempt and the non-violent collapse of communism. Yet at the same time, Weigel seems to imply that the then Cardinal Wojtyla also had an intuition that he would be elected Pope. How would he explain these “surprises” in the context of the Pope’s powerful sense of Providence?

Weigel corrects me, explaining “I wouldn’t claim he had an intuition he would be elected. I think he recognised it as a possibility and was wrestling spiritually during the second interregnum of 1978 with what that would mean for him.” He adds, “As for those ‘surprises’, well, I think he would say that what we perceive as a ‘surprise’ is simply a facet of the divine plan that we haven’t quite ‘fitted’ into the bigger picture yet.”

Thinking further of the assassination attempt I recall in Weigel’s book his suggestion that Ali Agca, the would-be assassin, was not acting as a lone wolf. Could he spell this out? “There is overwhelming evidence that Agca was being ‘run’ by at least one East bloc secret intelligence service, and there were likely other such agencies involved. No one who has studied this matter carefully doubts that the chain of causality leads, at the end, to the Soviet Union and most probably to the KGB.”

Weigel adds with some irony, “Will we ever find a piece of paper ordering the assassination of John Paul II? No, because things weren’t done that way.”

I mention to him that I was particularly struck by the reflection of the Pope’s English tutor, Sister Emilia Ehrlich, an Ursuline nun, concerning the divine “winnowing” of the Pope. How does he interpret this insight? Weigel reminds me that “in a remarkable sermon after the death of John Paul I, Cardinal Wojtyla spoke of the thrice-repeated questioning of Peter in John 21, saying that it was something to make the heart tremble – because Peter was in fact being asked whether he could empty himself of more of himself than the rest of the apostles, so as to be the centre of unity and servant of all.”

“It’s in that context that I think he would have understood what Sister Emilia Ehrlich was saying about his being ‘winnowed’ throughout his life by the deaths of his family and friends: he was being asked to lean exclusively on the Lord.”

Weigel is keen to add here that Sister Emilia is only “one of a cast of exceptional characters surrounding John Paul II. That is something else I hope this new book does: I hope it helps fill out the dramatis personae of John Paul II’s friends and collaborators. They are fascinating people in themselves and they also teach us some important things about John Paul II: that for example, he was willing to use a Russian émigré, Irina Alberti, as a kind of papal secret agent inside Russia.” He concludes humorously, “I don’t think there are too many popes who would have done that.”

Having picked up on Weigel’s ironic description of the Vatican bureaucracy as “Vaticanology 101”, I ask him to expand. He explains that it is not so much a description of the Vatican bureaucracy “as my image for the crash course I took in the 1990s in learning how to work with, and sometimes around, the Vatican bureaucracy.” He reflects, “The Curia is a unique micro-culture; it’s very good at obstruction; and some of its senior people weren’t as eager as John Paul II was to let me have the materials that I thought I needed in order to do a proper job on the Pope’s biography – materials he thought I should have.”

“So I had to learn how to get things done, sometimes obliquely, in this environment – and that taught me important lessons about how John Paul II got the bulky machinery of the Roman Curia to pull together in the direction he wanted to go.”

Following up this comment I tell Weigel I was very amused by his description of Cardinal Sodano, then the papal Secretary of State, treating him as if Sodano were “a Nobel laureate virologist and I were a mildly interesting new pathogen.” Choosing his words carefully Weigel responds, “Cardinal Sodano is a man of a certain ethnicity and formation, and because of this he didn’t seem to see much point in an American layman writing a papal biography with the Pope’s encouragement.”

“Nonetheless”, he comments, “he did shed some light on the Pope’s encouraging the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, to restore civil liberties and democracy in that country, where Sodano was then serving as papal nuncio.”

Slightly changing tack, Weigel adds, “My real question about Cardinal Sodano today, however, is why he seemingly insists on remaining as Dean of the College of Cardinals – i.e. the man who would conduct a papal funeral and lead the College of Cardinals in their discussions during an interregnum – at the age of 90.”

My penultimate question: why does he entitle his book Lessons in Hope? Weigel gives me a prompt reply: “Because that’s what, in retrospect, John Paul II taught me – and many, many others. He taught us lessons in hope.”

Finally, having taken up so much of his time, I ask Professor Weigel his opinion of the Catholic Herald. He tells me without hesitation that he thinks “it is one of the finest Catholic publications in the Anglosphere”, adding, “I look forward to its influence expanding in the North American market.”