STEUBENVILLE, OH—"The papacy was not a role Karol Wojtyla sought, but it was a role he fulfilled in a striking way for 26 years." said George Weigel, author of the two-volume biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, and The End and the Beginning.
Speaking to an overflow crowd at Franciscan University on February 23, Weigel discussed the enduring achievements of the late Pope John Paul II, who will be beatified on May 1, Divine Mercy Sunday. But more important than the achievements—the fall of Communism, the magisterial teaching, the ecumenical and interreligious outreach, the lives transformed, and so much more—was the late pontiff's commitment to the Person for whom he'd given everything.
"John Paul II was a man of enormous human gifts," said Weigel, whose book The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy was released in fall 2010. "But everything he did, all the roles he filled, was the expression of a fundamental commitment—to live life in conformity with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He was so seized by the truth that Paul called 'the more excellent way' that he spent his life inviting others to meet Him and to a deeper appreciation of the more excellent way."
"All that happened in his life from the 1940s on has to be understood as an expression of a radical conversion to Jesus Christ. That's what's being lifted up to the whole Church and the world" by the beatification, Weigel explained.
He noted that Billy Graham called Pope John Paul II "the greatest Christian witness of the second half of the 20th century," a role directly perceived by the large number of Franciscan University students and alumni who've attended World Youth Days with the late pope.
"It is striking that the most visible human being in the history of the world was a Polish pope" and not a politician, movie star, or other, more typical media personality, said Weigel. And John Paul achieved his unique stature by a deep fidelity to the fundamental nature of the papal office.
"He reached back to all the images of Peter in the New Testament—witness to the resurrection; the Church's first great preacher; the one who brings the first Gentiles into the Church; the center of unity; an evangelist; the first bishop of Antioch and bishop of Rome; martyr—and made that the image of the pontificate for the 21st century," said Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
The size of Weigel's audience testified to the compelling power of John Paul II's pontificate to touch and transform people's lives.
"He remade the office of Peter primarily into an office of evangelization, drawing deeply on Christ's commission in Luke 22:32: 'I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers,'" said Weigel, also author of The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism. "This turned out to be successful beyond anyone's wildest imagination.
"The world was looking for that kind of manifestation of spiritual fatherhood."
After the talk, Weigel answered questions, then signed books for a time.
Sponsored by the Franciscan University Advancement Office and Franciscan University Student Government, Weigel's lecture was the latest event in the Distinguished Speakers Series, which features leaders recognized for exemplary service to the Church and society.
The Franciscan University Presents show with Weigel as the special guest, titled "The Achievement of Blessed John Paul II," will air on EWTN on Sunday, August 7 at 10:00 p.m. EST, Tuesday, August 9 at 1:00 p.m. EST, and Thursday, August 11 at 5:00 a.m. EST.