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Sean SalaiJuly 18, 2014
George Weigel, who wrote a biography of John Paul II, speaks at a press conference at the Vatican April 25. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

George Weigel is a Washington, D.C.-based Catholic theologian and writer, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Vatican analyst for NBC News. His weekly column, “The Catholic Difference,” is syndicated to 60 newspapers.

Mr. Weigel is the author of 21 books, including Witness to Hopeand The End and the Beginning, his two-volume biography of John Paul II, who was canonized by Pope Francis on April 27. He received a B.A. from St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore and an M.A. from the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto. He has also been awarded 18 honorary doctorates in areas including divinity, philosophy, law, history and social science.

On July 16, I interviewed Mr. Weigel by email on the recent canonization of St. John Paul II. At the time of this interview, Mr. Weigel was in Cracow, Poland, where he was leading the 23rd annual session of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The following text of this interview is unabridged.

You’re in Poland now until July 22. What’s the current mood among Poles about the recent canonization of Pope John Paul II?

I think there’s a great sense of satisfaction here: satisfaction that the universal church has recognized the heroic virtues of a son of this country who bent the course of history in a more humane direction. At the same time, I’d suggest that the canonization of John Paul II ought to be the moment when Polish Catholicism stops looking back over its shoulder, so to speak, and begins to look forward with the “eyes” of John Paul II. World Youth Day 2016 in Cracow, to take one example, ought to be an occasion to think about the future of John Paul II’s new evangelization, here in Poland and elsewhere, rather than about the past. That’s certainly what he would want.

Why was Pope John Paul II’s canonization such a significant moment for the church and the world?

I vividly remember that, within an hour after John Paul II died, Henry Kissinger, discussing the late pope’s legacy with Brian Williams and me on NBC, said that John Paul had been the emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century—the man in whose life that historical drama had been most powerfully embodied. I think that’s right, and I also think it’s astonishing: no one expected that a Catholic priest and bishop, from a country long thought to be a victim of history rather than a protagonist of history, would play that role on the world stage. And that’s an important indicator of the vitality of Catholicism. Where a lot of Catholics saw chaos and confusion in the church in October 1978, when John Paul II was elected, he saw immense possibility—and then acted on that sense of possibility.

Under Pope Francis, the media’s attention seems to have moved from Europe to the third world, implying a shift in gravity from the last two pontificates. Why should Catholics still care about Europe?

Joseph Ratzinger once wrote that the “first inculturation” of the Gospel, in the civilization of classical antiquity, had been providential, because Greek rationality gave the early church the ability to “translate” kerygma (“Jesus is Lord”) into doctrine and creed. So while the Gospel can be inculturated anywhere, because the universal truths the Gospel bears illuminate and strengthen what is good in particular cultures, there is a certain pride-of-place in that “first inculturation.” So the state of the church in Europe, Christianity’s historic heartland, remains important for the world Church. Sometimes, however, that means resisting the misconceptions the European Church (or parts of it) have about the Catholic future, which is what is happening in the third world and North Atlantic response to certain proposals for the upcoming Synod coming out of Germany. I’d also suggest that Europe has no future—literally “no future,” given its catastrophic demographics—without a profound European rediscovery of the vitality of the Gospel, which, among other things, teaches us that generosity toward the future that is essential to creating the future in the most elemental sense, by having children.

As Catholics, what can we take from the course set by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI in regard to the future of the church in Europe?

The church in Europe will survive, even if it takes the form of one of those “creative minorities” of which Benedict XVI was fond of speaking, borrowing from Arnold Toynbee. The question is whether the church in Europe will have the capacity to give Europe a new birth of freedom rightly understood. And the only church capable of doing that is a church that has rejected the temptations of "Catholic lite" and embraced the symphony of Catholic truth in full. In that sense, the church in Europe ought to look to the most vital sectors of the church in the United States for a model of the New Evangelization of John Paul II—and of public engagement with what Benedict XVI presciently called the “dictatorship of relativism.”

Other than the canonization, what are some concrete ways Pope Francis has honored or continued the legacy of St. John Paul II?

"Evangelii Gaudium" is Pope Francis’s “playbook” for implementing John Paul II’s New Evangelization, as I tried to explain in the afterword to the recently-published paperback edition of my Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the Twenty-First Century Church. There’s a deep, strategic continuity here: at the end of the Great Jubilee, John Paul II challenged the world church to leave the shallow waters of institutional maintenance and “put out into the deep” of a New Evangelization. That is the core of Pope Francis’s message and, I think, the heart of his papal ministry.

Are you working on any upcoming projects in regard to St. John Paul II?

At the moment I’m working with my photographer-son, Stephen, and my old Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague, Carrie Gress Stibora, on a historical-spiritual guidebook to Cracow, presenting this remarkable city through the prism of John Paul II’s life here. I hope the book will be helpful for World Youth Day 2016 pilgrims, and long beyond that. And I continue to ponder the possibility of a memoir of my experiences with John Paul II.  

In your opinion, what are the greatest signs of hope in the Catholic Church right now?

The young people I’m privileged to work with here in Cracow—from the U.S., Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, Russia, Ukraine and Colombia—are a terrific sign of hope for the Catholic future, not least because they’re unaffected by the post-conciliar tong wars between Catholic “progressives” and Catholic “traditionalists.” They’ve met the truth in Jesus Christ, and they want to deepen their knowledge of that truth in all its dimensions, so that they can be the missionary disciples John Paul II and Francis are calling them to be; they’re simply uninterested in the who’s-in-charge-here fights that exhausted too much of post-conciliar Catholicism.

Then there are the tens—indeed hundreds—of thousands of people who were baptized as adults or came into full communion with the Catholic Church at Easter. That’s the index of the church’s health: how many new brethren are accepting our invitation into the Body of Christ. I’m also encouraged by the U.S. bishops’ firm stance in defense of religious freedom for all, which is a service to the United States and the world, not just to the Catholic Church.

What are the biggest challenges facing the Catholic Church right now?

I lay out a lot of this in the second part of Evangelical Catholicism, addressing what seem to me the reforms needed in the episcopate, the priesthood, consecrated life, the lay vocation, Catholic higher education, the liturgy, the church’s public witness, and the papacy and the Roman Curia, so that the church of the 21st century can be the church of the New Evangelization that it must be. Let me highlight just one of those proposals here.

We need a refined set of criteria for the selection of bishops, focused on a man’s proven capacity to be an evangelizer, and we need a refined mechanism for dealing justly, but with appropriate speed, when a bishop has manifestly lost the capacity to govern his diocese—which usually means a loss of his capacity to be an evangelist. The seeming inability of the church to deal with episcopal malfeasance or incompetence (or worse) is a large drag on the New Evangelization. That doesn’t mean subjecting bishops to impeachment-by-media-driven-plebiscite; it does mean recognizing when, by the church’s own standards, a change is essential for the future of the church’s evangelical mission, and acting on that recognition.  

As the legacy of St. John Paul II continues to evolve, what are your hopes for the pontificate of Francis?

Pope Francis was elected to clean up what Ronald Knox used to refer to as the “engine room,” meaning the church’s central administration. He has made a courageous start on that with the appointment of Cardinal George Pell as Prefect of a new Secretariat for the Economy and by the clean-up at the Institute for the Works of Religion, the “Vatican Bank.” The reform of the Curia will, I hope, continue, and be guided by what I called, in Evangelical Catholicism, the “criterion of mission”: does this or that proposed reform enhance the church’s mission-effectiveness? That would make clear that curial reform and restructuring is not just moving slots around on an organizational flow-chart, but a matter of trying to bring the church’s central administration into line with the New Evangelization, which it, like everything else in the church, must serve.

Any final thoughts?

Orioles Magic is back, I hope!

Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.

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Sandi Sinor
9 years 11 months ago
John Paul II did a few good things, and a lot of not so good things. John Paul II' major strengths and contributions were in the political realm. His papacy was a disaster for the church, in spite of all the celebrity hype he attracted. He was, sadly, a"rock star" popular pope who could not keep the church together. Even Poland's Catholic church is in trouble these days. The rush to canonization was a mistake. He should not have been canonized, if for no other reason than the fact that he rewarded bishops who protected pedophiles (such as Cardinal Law), protected Maciel, and generally failed miserably to protect the church's children. His concern seemed to be only for the priests. The 35+ years of his and his successor's papacies witnessed the largest outflow of Catholics from the western and Latin America church since the Reformation. Mr. Weigel acknowledges that European Catholicism is a disaster. The sharp declines began around the time John Paul II became pope, and accelerated during the subsequent 35 years. The pattern seen in Europe is more and more evident in the US also, where more than 30 million cradle Catholics have left the church during the period of the two papacies. The numbers of priests in the western nations fell dramatically beginning about the time John Paul II became pope. Even Latin America, where most of the world's Catholics live, has seen an overwhelming exodus of "practicing" Catholics. Perhaps Francis will be able to turn that around, or at least slow the outflow, but undoing the damage that was done between 1978 and 2013 may be impossible for one pope. The only true growth has been in Asia and Africa. It's easy to have dramatic growth rates when the baseline is small. (If you grow from 100 Catholics to 200, that a doubling of the Catholic population, right? Sounds great, but...) It also sounds great that "tens of thousands" joined the church at Easter, but Mr. Weigel fails to note that for every adult received into the Catholic church, four adult Catholics leave it. I agree with Mr. Weigel that there there is a need for a new set of criteria for selecting bishops. But I imagine his set of criteria and mine would be miles apart. I also believe that the Catholic church should adopt the model of selection of bishops used in the Episcopal Church - one that allows the participation of the whole church, including lower clergy and laity. After all, that is the way it was done in the early church.
Tim O'Leary
9 years 11 months ago
You are so off the mark on this one, Sandi, I could laugh. I felt I was reading an excerpt from a piece by the Flat-Earth Society. Pope St. John Paul II is called ‘The Great” for a reason (there are only 3 other Greats in 2000 years; Leo, Gregory & Nicholas), and not just because his actions contributed to freeing hundreds of millions from the yoke of Communism, or because his was the third longest pontificate. You misread the statistics re priests and Catholics as you fail to understand the time it takes to turn a ship around following the post VCII confusion. The hardest hit have been the religious orders (esp. the nuns), although the permanent deaconate and the lay ecclesial movements (e.g. Communion and Liberation, Opus Dei, Focolare, etc.) have grown exponentially. But, using the official statistics of the Annuario Pontificio (Pontifical Yearbook), you are still wrong. Comparing 1978 to 2005, the number of Catholics went from 758 million to 1.1 billion (1.2B in 2010), the number of diocesan priests went from 262,500 to 264,200 and the number of bishops went from 3,700 to 4,400. Moreover, a pope’s leadership is most rapidly evidenced by the number of seminarians. In 1978, there were 63,882 seminarians. That rose to 114,439 in 2005 and continued up to 120,616 in 2011. John Allen described this 440% increase in seminarians from 1984 to 2009 as a boom in his book Future Church. St. Pope John Paul II the Great was easily the most influential Pope of the last 500 years. He played a key role in compiling documents of VC II, and his long papacy ensured the authentic interpretation of that Council. He was decisively influential on Humanae Vitae and his own seminal work on the Theology of the Body and key doctrinal decisions set the Church’s response to the gender heresies of the present day. His encyclicals (14 in all) defined papal teaching for more than a generation on economics (Centesimus Annus & Sollicitudo Rei Socialis), human dignity & the authentic approach to Truth (Evangelium Vitae, Fides et Ratio, Veritatis Splendor) and authentic ecumenism (Ut Unum Sint). He led the modernization of Canon Law and the Catechism. His many travels and his World Youth Days have been highly influential to a new generation of Catholics mercifully free of the jaded concerns of Catholic dissidents. His many writings, speeches and doctrinal decisions have resulted in thousands, if not millions of converts to Catholicism. His personal holiness, Divine Mercy Sunday, the many new Saints and the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary updated devotional practice. He appointed a whole generation of Cardinals and Bishops, was beatified by one successor and canonized by the second. Both just might be more accurate interpreters of his personal holiness and the miracles that resulted in his canonization. What a giant of history: Shot by a man he quickly forgave and saved by Our Lady of Fatima, survivor of Communism and Nazism, robust athlete, poet and playwright. History has already decided on this man.
Sandi Sinor
9 years 11 months ago
Look up the numbers in the US, Latin America, and Europe, Tim. Do you really think it a good thing that the Catholic church is near death in Europe, and dying in the US and Latin America? He was a disaster for the church, although not as bad as his successor. But, you do want to get rid of every single Catholic who doesn't agree with you, so you should be happy about the dying church in the west. The church in the west continued to grow for the decade following VII. It didn't start to decline until 1978. VII was being gutted practically before it ended. It had little time to flourish. The combined papacies from 1978 and 2013 saw the beginning of the decline, which accelerated the more JPII and his right hand man began closing windows that had been briefly opened. They had 35 years to "turn the ship around" which shouldn't have been too hard as it had barely left the dock when the forces in Rome started that particular "course correction". Yet they failed miserably. They failed in turning the ship around, they lost tens of millions of Catholics in Europe and the Americas, they created a clerical culture that permitted the rape and molestation of thousands of kids, and never did a single thing to protect those kids or hold the hierarchy who permitted it to happen accountable. JPII praised Maciel to the skies, in spite of years and years of reports of his behavior. JPII didn't want to hear it - after all this man who was exploiting junior seminarians and, being an equal opportunity pervert, even molesting his own sons, taught that birth control was "evil" and brought a whole lot of money into the church. So JPII loved him. You can retain your childish hero worship of John Paul and Benedict if you want, but it is you who are denying the reality of what happened under those two popes. However, since you are among the "smaller but purer" is good group, you can pat yourself on the back as parishes continue to be closed and "consolidated" by the hundreds, as the numbers of parishes without a resident priest continues to grow (702 without a priest in 1975, 3496 without a priest in 2014, plus hundreds of closed parishes). The same dreary picture is clear at almost any measure of church vitality in the US, Europe, and Latin America you want to look at. But you don't want to look at it - you much prefer your purified fantasy world. I have learned that you much prefer your fantasy to reality. And I know from long experience here that you must always have the last word in any discussion or it will grow to dozens and even hundreds of posts. So I will no longer tilt at my own windmills, trying to get those with eyes to see to open them to the truth when they refuse to do so.
Joshua DeCuir
9 years 11 months ago
While I certainly agree that there were some things that both Popes probably were off the mark on (esp. Maciel), there are variety of factors that contributed to the problems you've described. Nor is it really fair to lay full blame for those various factors at the feet of the last 2 popes. One notable counterfactual springs to mind: one of JP II's most notable appointments was Jean-Marie Lustiger as Cardinal-Archbishop of Paris. Lustiger was definitely one of the more liberal interpreters of Vatican II; yet the faith of France collapsed almost overnight. One could think of similar appointments: Card. Mahoney is a prominent US example. If nothing else, you have to give both men credit for spotting the talent of one Jorge Bergoglio. PS - The manifest holiness of Pope John Paul II was clear to many people of different faiths, political ideologies & points of view. Not sure that honoring him for that necessitates calling someone "childish". Seems a bit of an ad hominem to me.
Tim O'Leary
9 years 11 months ago
Joshua - I agree both popes in question made several governance missteps, including getting a handle on the emerging sex abuse crisis, but also letting some religious orders run riot within their institutions (not only the Legionaires) and failing to deal with certain theologians. I still cannot understand how Hans Kung has had such delicate handling. Failure to act on heretical teachings only makes the sickness worse later on. Then, there's the Vatican bank and the "gay lobby." That didn't spring up overnight. One could go on forever about governance failures, as all leaders fail in this regard. Look for example at how poorly Lincoln managed his generals before Grant, or Churchill's failures in Gallipoli (WWI) and Norway & Yalta (WWII). But, when considering historical greatness, one looks primarily at the arc of history, and JPII has certainly bent that arc. We all make mistakes about people in our charge, either because we take too long to recognize a problem or fail to believe a criticism until it comes back to bite us. Few have a perfect or even good record when it comes to selecting people for positions. It is part of the human condition that people we put our trust in fail us. Judas is the most famous example. But, most scandals and apostasies were led by people appointed to high places. Someone supported them all early on in their careers. But, when it comes to sanctity, one doesn't even have to bend the arc in the right correction. Many saints have been administrative failures. Formal canonization is based only on personal sanctity, judged by an in-depth investigation into the life of the candidate, and is confirmed by the Holy Spirit through miracles. St. John Paul II - pray for us.
michael baland
9 years 10 months ago
Contrary to what Mr. Weigel implies, the future of the Church in Europe does not have to rely on white Europeans "having children." Presumably the New Evangelization also applies to the enormous numbers of African and Asian immigrants who are repopulating Europe.

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