Driving home from the airport on April 2, 2005 after visiting my daughter in Tunis, I learnt of John Paul II’s death on the car radio. Tears filled my eyes. Catholics throughout the world had the same reaction. This being so, I want to read anything that tells me more about the life of this saintly pope.
George Weigel’s book, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St John Paul II (Basic Books, 368pp, £25), completes his excellent earlier two biographies – Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning – and describes how he came to know the Holy Father well for more than 15 years, adding his own personal touches to the story of this towering figure.
Weigel shows how providence was at work at all times in the pope’s life and how providential for his own life was their friendship. An orthodox Catholic himself, Weigel understood why a liberal interpretation of John Paul II’s personality, shown in the 1995 biography by Tad Szulc, was wholly inadequate: the Polish pope could not be “pigeon-holed on some conventional liberal-conservative spectrum”.
Weigel writes ironically about what he calls “Vaticanology 101”: the Byzantine workings of the Curia. Most moving and instructive are his meetings and conversations with the Holy Father’s old Polish friends who had known him as both companion and pastor in Kraków before he became a bishop. Another Polish friend, Sister Emilia Ehrlich, a nun who tutored the then Cardinal Wojtyla in English, told Weigel of the “constant winnowing” of the pope by providence, relating: “There is an odd regularity to his life. Whenever he has a big religious experience, someone dies or is stricken …What would be great moments for anyone else also [involve] tragedies for him.”
First published in 1927 and republished this year, Dietrich von Hildebrand’s classic defence of the “radiant virtue of purity” deserves a wider readership. Certainly, intelligent, open-minded atheists should read In Defence of Purity (The Hildebrand Press, 174pp, £20), if only to acknowledge that the Catholic idea of purity is not remotely puritanical or kill-joy. To live the virtue properly is to experience joy, whether in marriage or in consecrated virginity, in a manner that ordinary human happiness doesn’t begin to approach.
Unusually for a philosopher and theologian, von Hildebrand writes in a way that is accessible to the lay person. Elegant (even in translation) and lucid, his prose is a pleasure to read. Indeed, as one reads his reflections as to why, for example, seduction and lust are degrading and corrosive for the soul, one realises that they are borne out of a life spent in prayerful contemplation of what it means to be human. Great writers have always known this. Recently I watched a film, made in 1960 from a Chekhov short story, The Lady and the Little Dog, about an unhappy love affair between a couple who are both married to other people. The desolation they experience in their clandestine encounters would have been obvious to von Hildebrand.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection