Saturday, February 12, 2005

Then, After I Showered, I Read This Book

In his novel "The Magic Mountain", Thomas Mann wrote that only the truly exhaustive is interesting. George Weigel may have taken Mann's maxim to heart when writing this massive biography of Pope John Paul II. Extensively researched and meticulously cross-referenced, this 900-plus page book seems to approach its subject by subtly appropriating methods and styles associated with the Pope, viz.,

1) Weigel places the focus of the book on the person of Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), rather than on abstract questions of ecclesiology, theology, or politics;

2) he approaches his subject discursively and from as many different perspectives and backgrounds as possible, taking the reader through fascinating presentations of Polish culture, World War II realities, Cold War geopolitics, Marxist socialism, the turbulence of the Second Vatican Council, the history of post-Revolution church-state relations in France, etc.;

3) he adopts a motto of John Paul II's phenomenology and attempts to understand his subjects "from the inside," to try to arrive at a sympathetic and experiential depth view of his subject; and

4) he presents the action of the book as a drama that unfolds, as poetic, and as prophetic vision.

A demanding read, not that it is exceedingly obscure or technical but due to the encyclopedic breadth of its narrative and its digressions, it is nonetheless a compelling read, particularly in the initial chapters and through most of the chapters on the pontificate. (The later chapters lose a bit of their edge, largely, one would think, because it becomes most difficult to frame contemporaneous events, absent the perspective that the passage of at least a few years gives.) The first quarter of the book concerns Karol Wojtyla before his election. This launches the book forward, since he is depicted so distinct and vividly in spiritually heroic and charismatic terms that, although the reader may be very familiar with John Paul II's pontificate, the reader will be pulled forward in the book by the strong desire to see how this man, the "Lolek" of this book, rises to the challenges of the papacy.

Weigel's writing is at all times respectful of the Pontiff -- he obviously admires John Paul II greatly. Weigel, an orthodox American Catholic, does not shrink from pointing out instances where he believes this papacy has stumbled or failed, such as His Holiness's frustrated (at least for the time being) initiatives to restore unity with the Orthodox Churches.

This biography also points down further avenues for understanding a slice of 20th century history -- works by phenomenologists such as Husserl and Scheler, the writings of Edith Stein, the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and Wojtyla's plays, philosophical treatises, and religious writing. It's always a particular reward when a book points to further areas to explore.

The College of Cardinals elected Wojtyla pope when this writer was still a teenager. Most of the import of it was lost on us, sadly -- adolescence has its own priorities. Weigel's book allows a chance to view that time through a new lens, to see movement and patterns in current history to which may have been missed the first time around.
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