In A Nutshell
In Witness to Hope, George Weigel attempts a comprehensive biography of Pope John Paul II. Although there have been other books on the Holy Father's life, Weigel recognizes deficiencies in these various accounts and hopes that, by telling the Pope's story "from the inside," he can portray a more accurate picture. Clearly the book is important for a Catholic audience since it purports to be the most authoritative account of the Holy Father's life and significance.
Even for non-Catholics this is a monumental work, since it is, as Zbigniew Brzezinski says on the book's jacket, "the best book on the remarkable life of a truly historic figure." Insofar as it is possible to pen a definitive biography while the subject lives, Weigel has accomplished his task. Other treatments of the Pope have focused on his philosophy or appreciated his role in world affairs, but no previous effort has shown so convincingly the extraordinary impact of John Paul II's life, both inside and outside of the Church. Among the available biographies, then, one can do no better than Witness To Hope.
As noted above, Weigel's intention is to cover the Pope's life in a comprehensive fashion. Weigel was granted unprecedented access to documentation, to personal friends, and to the Pope himself in the course of writing this book, and this access is reflected in the story.
Weigel begins by helpfully providing the context within which the life of Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) begins; namely, his native land of Poland. With due attention given to the testimony of childhood friends, Weigel recounts the early life of the Pope and his development into an intelligent, sensitive, talented young man. Next, the story moves on to Wojtyla's days as a seminarian, as a young priest, and finally as a (relatively young) bishop.
As archbishop of Krakow, Wojtyla attended the Second Vatican Council; an event that in many ways served as the defining experience of his subsequent pontificate. Finally, the book details Pope John Paul II's pontificate itself; more than two thirds of its more than 800 pages of text are devoted to those twenty-two years.
Weigel's writing is expert. He possesses a deep understanding of the Holy Father's attitude and outlook and he relates the Pope's life and thought in a manner that is always clear and comprehensible. Weigel's vocabulary is precise and his knowledge of history, theology, and the workings of the Church ensures that he does not confuse or misuse important terms and concepts.
Witness To Hope is a long book. The subject matter justifies the length, but Weigel's effort to be comprehensive, especially considering that John Paul II's pontificate has been meticulously recorded, does result in some tedious reading through the book's latter stages. This material will be immensely valuable as a chronicle of this pontificate, but the reader looking for a page-turner will be disappointed.
This is a book in which any serious Catholic should be interested. It is unlikely that Weigel's account (in its style, insight, and comprehensiveness) will be surpassed any time in the near future. In short, this book is recommended in the strongest terms.
You can purchase this title here.
Other recommended books on the Pope and his thought:
Karol Wojtyla: The Thought of the Man Who Became Pope John Paul II, by Rocco Buttiglione
The Splendor of Faith: The Theological Vision of Pope John Paul II, by Avery Dulles, S.J.