The Soul of Pope John Paul II

A 1999 talk by papal biographer George Weigel was rebroadcast on CSPAN last night. Weigel outlined seven aspects of the soul of Pope John Paul II.

1. A Polish soul. World War II era Poland was a unique milieu and crucible in which to develop as a Catholic; simultaneously intensely local and intensely universal expression of what it means to commit oneself to the truth entrusted to the Church –in the face of violent repression and risk.

2. A Carmelite soul. The influence of St. John of the Cross et al. As a young man, Karol Wojtyla joined a secret group called the “Living Rosary” headed by Jan Tyranowski, a layman strongly influenced by Carmelite mysticism. In 1949, Wojtyla wrote his thesis on “Faith According to St. John of the Cross.”

3. A dramatic soul. As a young man, Wojtyla pursued acting. This informed his sense of each human being being an actor in the divine drama.

4. A marian soul. His understanding of Mary’s instrumentality in preventing his death from an assassin’s bullet; the Fatima connection. His motto “totus tuus” — “all yours” — directed towards Mary.

5. A lay soul. In creative tension with his priestly vocation, informed by his ministry to young people and couples. There was an ongoing exchange of letters between Fr. Wojtyla and a young woman who had fallen in love, in which he explored the theological dimensions of what it means to fall in love.

6. An apostolic soul. His vocation as a priest, bishop and later as pope.

7. A humanistic soul. Recovering the dignity of humanity.

I would add: A soul for all seasons. Cf. A Man for All Seasons.

A pretty good speech, to which I’m not doing justice. It was good to catch something substantive among the ongoing deluge of “death watch” soundbites.


  1. T. F. Rigelhof says

    Weigel has paid much closer attention to John Paul’s writings than other biographers, and is anything but simple-minded, but his own evangelical earnestness does seem to miss an irony that Karol Wojtyla has recognized: History teaches us that we must accept a variety of histories.

  2. Larry B. Stammer says

    Weigel’s nearly 1,000-page book “Witness to Hope,” opens a window into John Paul’s priestly formation, spirituality and writings that is essential in understanding the underlying religious ethos that has propelled this remarkable pontiff onto the world stage and in the process made him a moral superpower. This book is an apologia. Weigel is more than reporter, more than biographer. He is an unabashed advocate, a pleader of the papal cause, a champion of the Holy Father and explicator of papal pronouncements. No other popular biographer has ventured as exegete (and apologist) into the intellectual thicket of closely reasoned and finely nuanced papal pronouncements in order to make them more readily understood. “Witness to History” is a meticulously researched book that is certain to become a benchmark for future inquiries into the life and times of Pope John Paul II.

  3. Cathy Lynn Grossman says

    Weigel calls him “a singular figure of our times because not only has he lived through so much of the horror of the 20th century, but he came out on the far side not a cynic but a man who believes the 21st century can be a springtime of the human soul.”

  4. Lee Edwards says

    Although he lived under totalitarian regimes-first the Nazis and then the communists-from the age of 19 through 58, Wojtyla never succumbed to despair as did many in Eastern Europe, describing himself as a “witness to hope” in his 1995 address to the United Nations. In his 1979 inaugural encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, and throughout his papacy, writes Weigel, John Paul II proclaimed “Christian humanism as the Church’s response to the crisis of world civilization at the end of the twentieth century.”

  5. James H Billington says

    ‘Weigel gently suggests that the nonCatholic world might do well to heed and respond more imaginatively to the Pope’s invitation to say what it would like to see in a future papacy. Many would be inclined to say simply: John Paul III. However, even if cloning were possible, there would still remain the unresolved, underlying dilemma posed by the conflicting legacy of his papacy-and perhaps of the office itself in this confused, often cruel and increasingly self-indulgent age: Is a pope, in the last analysis, a priest who must be defender-in-chief of a besieged institution, whose members venture out mainly to help others come in to join their company? Or is he-can he be-a prophet of broader human renewal, the forerunner of some new community of faith and human solidarity for the coming millennium? George Weigel’s magnificent modern defense of an ancient faith suggests that this Pope has tried to be both on a global scale. No one who perseveres to the end of this exhaustive account of a seemingly inexhaustible Christian can doubt that he has been as successful as any mortal man could hope to be.

  6. Jana Riess says

    Weigel’s command of the material is impressive, but Witness to Hope reads more like a valedictory hagiography than a sober work of journalism.

  7. Rembert G. Weakland says

    Perhaps the question that looms most cannot now be answered: How much of the legacy of this remarkable pope will live on in the hearts of the believers? It has been a long pontificate. Pope John Paul II has been a remarkable pope. But the divisions in the church are real. Not all have been convinced that this way of recasting the role of pope is either traditional or viable in the long run.

  8. Jay Nordlinger says

    It is Weigel’s guess that John Paul has stamped the papacy for years to come, returning it to “its evangelical roots.” No longer do people “think of the pope as the chief executive officer of the Roman Catholic Church.” Weigel also believes that the present pope may someday be known, like a Gregory and a Leo before him, as John Paul “the Great.” One thing is certain, made unmistakable by Witness to Hope: Rarely has there been so perfect a marriage of man to job as Karol Wojtyla to the papacy. He was appointed at just the right time, and he has met his obligations superbly. The same may be said for his biographer.

  9. Andrew Nagorski says

    Weigel’s biography of John Paul is a tremendous achievement. Readers can agree or disagree with the pope’s positions. They can agree or disagree with Weigel’s frankly admiring presentation of his thinking; he readily admits that he doesn’t expect to win over the pope’s determined critics. But it would be hard for any fair-minded reader to dispute Weigel’s assertion that “it is a very obscure corner of this planet that has not been in some way touched by the life of this pope and by his proposals for humanity’s future.” Or to claim that anyone else has come close to presenting John Paul’s vision as a coherent, fully consistent body of beliefs as powerfully and effectively as he has.

  10. John Muggeridge says

    Mr. Weigel calls Vatican II “the most important event in Catholic history since the Reformation.” It “ended the centuries-old gap between the Church and science.” It also initiated a transition “from an authoritarian religious institution to an authoritative religious community.” It even removed “the Manichaean shadow over Catholic sexual ethics” that was presumably put there by Saint Augustine in the fourth century. Mr. Weigel argues that, by elevating the archbishop of Cracow, Karol Wojtyla, to the papacy in 1978, God chose a man who had already come to see himself as Vatican II’s “particular heir.”

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