Wojtyla Writ Large, and Long

Witness to Hope
The Biography of Pope John Paul II
George Weigel
HarperCollins, $35, 992 pp.

No one can write an entirely successful biography of a living pope. Not only does the biographer lack access to fundamental sources such as diaries and private letters, but he is denied the perspective which only time—and death—can bring to any life. If he is a Catholic and sympathetic to his subject, he is further constrained by the glamour of the papal office. A living pope is always the greatest and best of men; but after death, as we used to be told in catechism classes, there comes the judgment.

In this doomed enterprise, nevertheless, George Weigel starts with some formidable advantages. An experienced commentator on religion and public affairs, he is one of America’s most intelligent Catholic conservatives. He has a short way with the more brainless forms of left-wing claptrap (evident here, for example, in his discussion of Cuban political rhetoric), a vigorous and well-paced style, and the ability to explain and simplify complex ideas clearly and persuasively—crucial above all in interpreting this philosopher pope. He writes out of a passionate sympathy with his subject, whom he considers to be "the most compelling public figure in the world, the man with arguably the most coherent and comprehensive vision of the human possibility in the world ahead....the compleat Christian." Moreover, he writes, he tells us, at the express invitation of the pope, issued during a "freewheeling conversation...over roast...

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About the Author

Eamon Duffy is Reader in Church History in the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Magdalene College. He is the author of The Stripping of the Altars and Saints and Sinners, a history of the popes, both published by Yale University Press.