How do you write an authoritative biography of one of the most towering figures of the twentieth century? A herculean task, no less. One journalist, though, by the name of George Weigel, decided to take the challenge. Leader of more than 1.2 billion people worldwide, one of the longest leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, and one of the driving forces that topple communism, Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) is a human being to large for a book.
A reader of the Vatican, religious history, or anyone generally interested in biographies must never skip this gigantic book, doing its best to paint a human being in its humblest and grandiose senses. No popes before or after can match Pope John Paul II’s appeal, and most likely none will ever will again. Witness to Hope, first of a two-part series on Pope John Paul II, will navigate you through the earliest days of his life, his priesthood, his stand in the “Year of three Popes” (1978, when a succession of Pope Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II were elected), and his papacy all the way to the year 2000.
I should admit my ‘bias’ though: I admire the figure of John Paul II, as a Pope (I’m not a Catholic, by the way), as a global figure, and as a leader. This biography, while not complete (because there’s a second part of the biography), provides a very excellent and ambitious biography of one of the most defining figures in the 20th century.
Weigel tells the story in a very chronological way (instead of thematic, an approach which partially chronological yet does not focus on the chronology, but on the defining themes of the figure’s life). For historical buffs, the format will be easy to follow. The stories are pretty detailed, providing many insights that often unknown to the public. The story is pretty much enchanting and inviting. Readers who want to discover more of the Pope will find this satisfactory. In fact, from some 10+ biographies of the same Pope that I’ve read, this is clearly the best and most detailed, hands down.
There are a number of concerns, however, which may be minor to most readers. Firstly is the thick theological perspective. This is clearly a no-surprise, since what else would you expect from a religious figure such as the Pope? However, a layman (and non-Catholic) like me will find this a bit tedious to follow. It does provide a lot of insights to the Catholic belief, yet understanding what is written is another issue. To make it clear, not that it is bad, only somehow tedious. Secondly, I consider this biography to be a bit apologetic to the Pope, which rarely mentions the downside/other side of the Pope (not only as a Pope, but as a human being). Attempts to make a biography that covers both sides usually requires both opinions from supporters and opponents. I don’t see this adequately within the biography. Thirdly, I don’t see adequate details for a book that long. I take part of the blame since I’ve read numerous biographies (and watched numerous movies) regarding this figure, there are some expectations in terms of ‘what’s next’. Sometimes, I think it doesn’t adequately fulfill my expectation, in terms of details of story. For instance, I was expecting more when reading about the Pope’s first visit to his native homeland, Poland. The story, however, while providing new insights not provided in other book, is not put into a detailed perspective that I expected (e.g. a coverage on the mass in Warsaw, how the Polish authorities debated about the visit, or the alleged quote “better Solzhenitsyn to be the Secretary-general of the United Nations than a Pole becomes pope”).
Regardless, I find this biography to be the best, and probably ‘the most authoritative’ biography of Pope John Paul II; and this put the competitors way behind in terms of biographical work. The above concerns may not matter at all for some readers, yet it does not decrease the quality of this book as a very ambitious work to elaborate the story of one of the most prominent figures of our lifetime.
Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II
FROM THE PUBLISHER:
Witness to Hope is the authoritative biography of one of the singular figures–some might argue the singular figure–of our time. With unprecedented cooperation from John Paul II and the people who knew and worked with him throughout his life, George Weigel offers a groundbreaking portrait of the Pope as a man, a thinker, and a leader whose religious convictions defined a new approach to world politics–and changed the course of history. As even his critics concede, John Paul II occupied a unique place on the world stage and put down intellectual markers that no one could ignore or avoid as humanity entered a new millennium fraught with possibility and danger.
The Pope was a man of prodigious energy who played a crucial yet insufficiently explored role in some of the most momentous events of our time, including the collapse of European communism, the quest for peace in the Middle East, and the democratic transformation of Latin America. This updated edition of Witness to Hope explains how this “man from a far country” did all of that, and much more–and what both his accomplishments and the unfinished business of his pontificate mean for the future of the Church and the world.