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.
Beyond his spirituality, John Paul was a tough, athletically gifted man’s man. As a boy, he was a soccer star. He swam, skied, and kayaked. He even wrote poetry and plays, and learned to speak seven different languages. As a man, he climbed mountains – literally and figuratively – and he knew first-hand what it meant to labor in a factory. He was able to relate to both common people and the elite. He was a serious man, but with a sense of humor.
John Paul also was “an intellectual and yet warm, but with an honest warmth and not just a charming one; sweet but skeptical, emotional but not sentimental,” Noonan writes. His sincere warmth and compassion, even compelled him to meet with and forgive his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, who shot and nearly killed the pontiff in 1981.
When it came to church doctrine and the teachings of Christ, the Pope was a staunch traditionalist, believing that 2,000 years of “church thinking” could not be discarded by modern man with his own ideas of revamping that thinking to justify his own behaviors. Truth is truth, whether man likes that truth or not. And the Bible is the word of God: Not some marginally inspired work to be re-interpreted and amended to suit man’s whims. Even so, the Pope was a “progressive thinker who embraced science and the arts,” says Noonan. “His thoughts on the big bang theory of creation might well be true, that it is not incompatible with the church’s teachings.”
Noonan adds, “John Paul liked to remind scientists that the big bang theory was conceived in the mind of a scientist who was a priest, Father George Lemaitre of Belgium, whose work was applauded by Albert Einstein.”
John Paul was a man whom the chaotic world needed in an age when God was being marginalized, morality was in great decline, technological advances and resultant over-the-top materialism was increasing exponentially, world trade was expanding, the “Iron Curtain” was about to fall, and global terrorism was soon to be ratcheted up to a level previously unimagined.
The right man at the right time, John Paul was a spiritual father who would guide billions into the complex and dangerous new century. “A spiritual father is more than someone you admire,” writes Noonan. “ He is someone with whom you feel safe, because he can point the way to truth, which somehow we all know is the only safe thing in the world.”
John Paul was indeed a man of truth; a man convinced that men were created in the image of God. Noonan points to the Pope’s teachings of man’s freedom to choose to love God and to accept God’s love as proof of that creation. And if man was created in God’s image, the Pope believed, “[God] also built man to create – to bring into being, to discover, to break through in a continuing quest for artistic and scientific and intellectual and moral truth,” writes Noonan.
Despite John Paul’s great spiritual leadership, it was during his reign that the church was rocked by the sex scandals in America that Noonan contends are “inescapably part of his legacy.” The incidents of sexual abuse did not begin under John Paul’s reign, “but they grew in scope and number during his tenure,” she writes.
Why didn’t the Pope respond adequately? Noonan suggests a variety of reasons related to his unwitting disconnection from it all, not the least of which was “John Paul was a Pole of another era who simply could not imagine – who had no category for – the idea of Catholic priests operating in a kind of protection racket in which they serially molest teenage boys and their superiors engage in a systematic cover-up.”
But the scandals themselves cannot be laid at the feet of John Paul. After all, they were as much blows to the heart of the Pope, as the church. And as the Vicar of Christ, the pope was in a sense the church. Moreover, John Paul transcended the church. He seemed to belong to people of all denominations, faiths, creeds, colors, and countries. Noonan illustrates this fact writing about the pontiff’s funeral where she says, “the whole world seemed to stop. It became still. … As if time were suspended, as if the Western world, the whole world of ambition and industry and calculation and material thoughts – stopped.”
The world did stop for a moment: For as Noonan suggests, the world was without John Paul, the great spiritual father, and the world was momentarily alone and frightened. She then reminds us of the Pope’s most famous words… “Be not afraid.”