Former White House speechwriter Peggy Noonan believes most biographies of Pope John Paul II “locate” the late pontiff in the context of history and explain his place in it. What they often “avoid,” she says, is speaking “at any great length of what he believed at his core."
In John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father, Noonan does examine his core beliefs because, as she writes, “what he believed is the reason for his greatness, the explanation of his power.”
With her characteristic flair for storytelling, Noonan captures that greatness and power in a collection of tales, anecdotes from a variety of insiders, and reflections of her own experiences that artfully celebrate both the mortal man and the transcendent soul.
Noonan begins with the medieval pageantry surrounding one of the pope’s public appearances at the Vatican. There – during the sweltering Roman summer of 2003, less than two years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 – she saw him, “broken,” “bent,” soon to leave the world, but “a lion” among leaders who compelled those in his presence to alternately sing and weep.
Noonan then launches into the life of Poland’s Karol Wojtyla – destined to become Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian pontiff in over four centuries – and the enormous roles he would play in collapsing the Soviet Union, expanding the church’s reach throughout the undeveloped world, and spreading a message of genuine hope to all.
The book goes on to describe John Paul’s deep, pious communing with God: The pope’s prayer life was reported to be “mystical,” she says. It was a fact that got the attention of Poland’s former Communist government and even the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the latter mentioning the Pope’s “mystical essence” in a profile the agency was developing on him during the 1970s. Vatican press secretary Joaquin Navarro-Valls described feeling “a kind of lightening, or even giddiness” in the presence of the praying pope. Others reported finding John Paul “at times lying face down on the floor of his chapel, arms outstretched like Christ on the cross,” Noonan writes, adding that she often tried to imagine his face when he prayed. A friend would tell her, when his eyes were shut tight and he muttered or winced, the Pope was in his “interior world” of prayer.