On October 17, author George Weigel signed copies of his new book, “The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — the Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy,” at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. I had the pleasure of seeing him there and getting a book signed. A video of the signing can be found here.
Although it is considered a companion volume or a sequel, Weigel’s new book can actually stand well on its own. Indeed, I consider it superior in some ways to its predecessor, the international bestseller “Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II.” That book was a masterful biography that left nothing out. “The End and the Beginning” is leaner and tighter, but no less profound.
The book breaks down into three parts: “Nemesis,” “Kenosis,” and “Metanoia.” Nemesis involves John Paul II’s fight against communism; kenosis is the “outpouring of self in conformity to the self-sacrifice of the crucified Christ”; and metanoia, an ongoing conversion in which the Christian disciple grows deeper morally, intellectually and spiritually. Weigel explores how John Paul II fought totalitarianism, and how he lived the Christian virtues.
Most reviewers and interviewers have taken an interest in the first section, nemesis. It recounts John Paul II’s remarkable battle against communism. Recently declassified documents that Weigel makes good use of reveal that the communist regimes of the 20th century were even more duplicitous, petty, and evil than suspected. They waged a war to try and dismantle the Catholic Church through propaganda, infiltration and outright violence, and at first were amused by the Polish bishop Karol Wojtyla (who would later become Pope John Paul II) — after all, he was “just a poet.” Of course, the young priest, actor, poet and mystic also turned out to be a lion. Weigel, a brilliant writer whom I believe gets underrated as a prose stylist because he is always first considered a Catholic scholar, tells the story of John Paul II’s resistance with deep intelligence and insight. He also paces the tale beautifully; it is the stuff of action movies, and Weigel’s book would have been optioned by now had Hollywood not been rooting for the Reds for the last 90 years.
Yet for me, the best parts of “The End and the Beginning” are the sections on kenosis and metanoia. It was only through these metaphysical and interior actions that John Paul II found the strength to topple communism — and to change hearts and save souls. The self-emptying of kenosis, which so powerfully contradicts the culture of narcissism, served as an example that inspired millions to challenge themselves to live not for things but for others. And metanoia, a constant process of conversion, enriches rather than dulls lives. It made Karol Woytyla more formidable, not less. As Weigel writes, “The paradox of metanoia, which was manifest in the life of Karol Wojtyla, is that all these emptying of self leads to the richest imaginable human experience: a life unembittered by irony or stultified by boredom, a life of both serenity and adventure.”
This is the theme that Weigel has been writing and speaking about for years: that living the high adventure of Christian orthodoxy doesn’t deplete us, but makes us richer, more serene, more sane. It makes life fun. It opens our eyes to beauty — the beauty of the infinite. It also, contra liberalism and the new angry atheists, improves the world. The view of the secularists is reductive — the Catholic Church hates sex! — and in being reductive it makes the mistake of missing the reality of the supernatural in all of its contradiction and splendor. The great paradox is that the Catholic Church and its champions have a firmer grasp on reality than Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, or the President of the United States. Who is a more healthily integrated person, body, soul, and mind — the pope (past or present) or Frank Rich? As Chesterton noted, the maniac is not the man who has lost his reason — it is the man who has lost everything except his reason. The healthy man, Chesterton went on, allows the twilight. He allows paradox.
John Paul II, a genius with a sense of humor, a warrior with a tender heart, was just such a man — maybe one of the last truly sane world leaders. In his great book, Weigel sums him up well:
There are many ways to characterize [John Paul II’s] interior life: as the life of a radically converted Christian disciple; as the life of a man who combined poetic sensibility and philosophical rigor; as the life of a solitary and frequently orphaned man whose personality was nourished by long and deep friendships; as the life of a celibate who mastered the arts of fatherhood; as the life of a mystic and contemplative man who was compelled, by what he believed to be God’s design, to be a man of action.
Mark Gauvreau Judge is the author of several books, including Damn Senators and God and Man at Georgetown Prep. His articles and essays have appeared in various publications.