(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

George Weigel studied at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore and at St. Michael’s College in Toronto. He has published extensively on Catholicism and the collapse of communism in eastern Europe. He is a prominent Catholic theologian, and he presently serves as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

Weigel’s admiration for the actions and moral teachings of Pope John Paul II, both before and after his election as pope in October, 1978, is obvious to readers, and he presents his analysis of Pope John Paul II’s life and religious career clearly, so that readers can understand thoroughly the horrendous conditions in Poland during the Nazi and communist occupations, the important role played by Pope John Paul II in the collapse of communism in eastern and central Europe, and his long service as pope.

The pope himself agreed to be interviewed several times by Weigel for this biography. Weigel also conducted extensive research in Poland and Rome. Friends in Krakow shared with him their knowledge of Karol Wojtyła’s work as a parish priest and university chaplain in Krakow after his ordination in 1946, his service as a professor of theology and philosophy at Lublin’s Catholic University, his important role in presenting to Polish Catholics theological reasons for opposing communism, and his skill and courage in defending Polish Catholics against real threats by successive communist regimes both before and after his election as pope. Weigel knows well Karol Wojtyła’s extensive writings in Polish on theology and philosophy and the numerous encyclicals and books written by Pope John Paul II on such diverse topics as morality, the essential beliefs of Catholicism, ecumenism, the equality and dignity of women, and human rights. Witness to Hope, completed in early 1999, should remain the standard biography of Pope John Paul II for years to come.

Pope John Paul II is a humble man who does not like to talk about himself, but Weigel has succeeded in learning many facts about his life and ecclesiastical career. Karol Wojtyła was born on May 18, 1920, to Karol and Emilia Wojtyła in Bielsko-Biala, Poland, where his father was serving as an officer in the Polish army. After his father’s retirement from the Polish Army in 1927, the Wojtyłas moved to Wadowice. During his high school years, the younger Karol acted in numerous plays and learned to speak effectively. His parents were very religious and not at all anti-Semitic. During the Nazi occupation of his homeland, Karol Wojtyła worked as a day slave laborer in a chemical plant; starting in 1942, he attended, at night, a clandestine seminary in Krakow from which numerous priests and seminarians were arrested by the Gestapo and later killed in concentration camps. Karol Wojtyła was not detected and was ordained a priest on November 1, 1946, in Krakow.

Even before his election as pope in 1978, Karol Wojtyła was very well known throughout Poland as an effective writer and defender of the Catholic faith. His intellectual training was first-rate. He earned two doctorates. From November, 1946, until June, 1948, he studied at the Angelicum in Rome and wrote a dissertation in Latin on the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross. While in Rome, he met leading theologians of that era, and after his return to Poland he recognized the need to obtain a doctorate in Poland so that he could teach at a Polish university. In 1954, he defended at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University his dissertation on the phenomenologist Max Scheler. In this work, Karol Wojtyła tried to reconcile modern philosophical thought with traditional Catholic beliefs. He persuaded Polish Catholic intellectuals that Catholicism made much more sense than communism. He developed effective logical arguments to support and encourage a commitment to Catholic values and dogma.

In 1958, Pope Pius XII named Karol Wojtyła an auxiliary bishop in Krakow. This was Pius’s last appointment of a bishop. Nine years later Pope Paul VI, who had gotten to know Bishop Wojtyła during the Vatican II Council, named him a cardinal. During the twenty years between his appointment as bishop and his election as pope, Karol Wojtyła wrote extensively on topics that later dominated his papacy. He explained clearly the inalienable rights of each individual, the importance of religious freedom and the need for Catholics to respect other faiths, the liberating value of sexual love within marriage, the dignity and equality of women, youth...

(The entire section is 1836 words.)