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Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

The Legacy of John Paul II

Why the bishop of Rome may be the most important figure in this secularist age.

What in the tumultuous history of the twentieth century could have led anyone to predict that the most visible of its extraordinary galaxy of leaders would be the two hundred and forty-sixth Bishop of Rome—that amidst the generals, presidents, monarchs, and dictators, a Catholic priest might emerge as the most influential of the century's leaders? It seems unlikely that even the College of Cardinals of the Roman Curia, who, on October 16, 1978, took the extraordinary step of electing Cardinal Karol Jozef Wojtyla, Archbishop of Krakow, to succeed John Paul I on the chair of Saint Peter, foresaw the full significance of their action.

None could mistake the daring of their choice: the first Slav ever to be elected to the papacy, and the first non-Italian in 455 years. But even those most familiar with Cardinal Wojtyla's special qualifications were unlikely to have imagined the extraordinary quality and impact of his papacy. Taking the name of John Paul II, the new pope inaugurated what George Weigel, in Witness to Hope, suggests may well rank as the most important papacy since the Catholic Reformation of the sixteenth century.

A longtime student of the Church and this pope, Weigel has given us what may fairly be viewed as the premier biography of Pope John Paul II for this generation. Although not an authorized biography in the strict sense, Witness to Hope has benefited from Weigel's unparalleled access to the Holy Father, his closest associates, his friends, and his papers. It is unlikely that Weigel would have enjoyed this extraordinary "access" had the Holy Father not had confidence in his project, especially since, in granting it, the Holy Father "retained no rights of approval."

That confidence was not misplaced. Notwithstanding the daunting length, this is a compellingly readable book. The long sections on the years of the papacy occasionally drag a little, primarily because of Weigel's admirable determination to provide a comprehensive account of John Paul II's ...

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