on November 28, 2005
Peggy Noonan, a weekly columnist for the Wall Street Journal, does a splendid job of presenting an unforgettable spiritual father-figure in her life, the late Pope John Paul II. She also makes a case that everyone longs for such a person and that John Paul met the challenge of serving as pastor for the entire world. Coming from a humble and trying early life under both Nazi and Soviet aggression, Karol Wojtyla sought and met the God whom he presented so beautifully to all. His first pilgrimage to Poland as a new pope still resounds today through the history-making words "We want God!" John Paul showed us that living the heavenly life is not mere wishful thinking, but a reality enlivened through faith. Even his dying and funeral were sublime, and his legacy will only grow with time.
I especially liked Ms. Noonan's vignette of the pope with Jim Caviezel, the actor who portrayed Jesus in the Mel Gibson film "The Passion of the Christ." Artistic himself and a former actor, John Paul uplifted Caviezel and his family and helped Jim to understand that the suffering he endured in the shooting of the film was worth it after all. As John Paul himself said of "The Passion," "It is as it was." Also, there is a vignette of the young Fr. Wojtyla with the Italian mystic Padre Pio (Forgione).
"John Paul the Great" can be read as a marvelous complement to George Weigel's standard reference "Witness to Hope," a source it draws from often. In addition, Ms. Noonan brings us up to date as she openly shares her insights on the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Neither candy-coating it nor dehumanizing the offenders, she instead zeroes in on the crux of the problem. "The actions of the abusers and their excusers reflect a profound immaturity." So much so that John Paul, with all the hardships and pain that he endured, found such pampered recklessness difficult to fathom. Kudos and thanks to Peggy Noonan for raising our consciousness in this wonderful and inspiring book! Fr. Dennis J. Mercieri
on January 15, 2006
If I could fashion myself as the perfect writer, I think I would like the imagination of Tolkien, the depth of C.S. Lewis, the vocabulary of William Buckley, and humor of Wodehouse, the edge of Ann Coulter, and the grace of Peggy Noonan. I have never read a word of hers that didn't shine a gentle, warm light on whatever it was to be lucky enough to have her writing about it. Her book, John Paul the Great, is no exception.
With her customary, grace, and respect she writes with love, affection, and candor about John Paul II and the faith he inspired in Catholics, in Christians, and most especially, in her. She made me smile with her story of coffee and the rosary. ("I don't have a cup of coffee in the morning -- I have a glass of coffee, because it's bigger.") And stand in stunned awe of Mother Teresa who experienced a perdio of spiritual darkness that began shortly after she left her convent to serve the poor until her death. She then deftly turned to admiration of John Paul II who accelerated Mother Teresa's canonization process because he knew that he spiritual heroism was greater, much greater, than any of us suspected. John Paul II knew that the canonization process would force into the public arena what Mother Teresa had kept so privately and that his flock would be instructed and inspired.
"Great men lift us up. They tell us by their presence that everything is possible, that as children of God we are part of God, and as part of God we can, with him, accomplish anything. Anything."
And great writers tell us about great men. Thank you Ms. Noonan. I enjoyed your telling and your willingness to share your own journey.
on February 22, 2006
There is a moment in the Mass - just before you go up to receive `Communion'. . . when you say an ancient phrase (20 centuries old?)
"Lord, I am not worthy to receive You . . . but only `say the Word' - and I shall be healed."
As a former journalist (who once interviewed Mother Teresa in 1984 -- same year Peggy Noonan met Mother on a walkway outside the Reagan White House) I was struck by the fact that this tiny, but `tough-as-wire' woman - this saint! - could say those same words with genuine humility: The idea that, ` I'm not good enough' to be here . . . "but only say the word, and I shall be healed."
Almost 20 years later (in 2003) Peggy Noonan -- author of this unique biography -- was selected to speak at the Vatican, at the ceremony for the beatification of Mother Teresa - an event which coincided with the twenty-fifth anniversary of John Paul's papacy.
Feeling a little overwhelmed at the magnitude of the occasion (on the eve of a Papal Mass attended by half a million pilgrims) Peggy Noonan asked fellow-members of the American delegation to the ceremony for their thoughts. Then, following the open-air Mass in St. Peter's Square, Peggy Noonan, took the podium in "the audience hall at St. Peter's . . . and became the first woman ever to make a speech from the papal throne."
For two days leading up to the occasion, Noonan was unable "to think of ANYTHING about Mother Teresa that seemed good enough to say - (that was) original, or worthy of a saint."
So when her moment came before the microphones, she quoted fellow members of the American delegation:
"As I experienced today's Mass (in St. Peter's Square) I felt we were all loving TWO saints . . . Mother Teresa and John Paul II. And as I watched it all, another member of (our) delegation leaned over and said, `I am not good enough to be here.' She felt she wasn't a good enough Catholic to be here.
"When she said it, I thought - Mother Teresa would like that. She would like my friend's humility . . . because it speaks of our sometimes messy but authentic and God-given humanity." Noonan recalled words spoken to her by several women members of the American delegation, "including Mother Agnes of the Sisters of Life" who put it most simply:
Mother Teresa in her own way "let God take over completely . . . she was a fine instrument of God -- she touched millions of lives, as only God can."
At that very moment, Noonan says, "Mother Agnes, who had been called to meetings near the Vatican, was hurriedly crossing St. Peter's Square . . . where, for the pilgrims, they had set up huge `Jumbotrons'
"And just as Mother Agnes was walking along, the wind blowing her habit, wondering how I'd done in my speech, she heard my voice . . .
"She looked up and saw my face on the Jumbotron as I said these words: "As a wonderful member of our delegation, Mother Agnes of the Sisters of Life pointed out, humility is something we associate with Mother Teresa."
She and Mother Agnes soon became good friends . . . and a few months later, (in what Peggy Noonan smilingly attributes to "that great, unseen circularity of life, where we all interact with people we are supposed to help, and be helped by,") she said the "the producers of the game show `Jeopardy!' invited me on their show (a program where) "Washington people play, in order to raise funds for charities."
"I phoned Mother Agnes and said that -- if her convent would PRAY for me, then I would PLAY for them! And pray they did . . . and the following month the Sisters of Life received a check for twenty thousand dollars . . . my modest winnings as the person who came in second."
It's in such gentle, little anecdotes as these (and there are many within these 235 pages) readers may find that which is most endearing about this book - uniquely feminine insights into holiness --- `saintliness-in-general' . . . as well as its particular radiance in "John Paul the Great."
Make no mistake: Peggy Noonan throws a harsh light on the American Church and doesn't mince words:
"When I see them all, the bishops and the cardinals of the Church, marching in their miters in procession . . . and at receptions and buffets, they seem to me - by and large - sleek, pink-cheeked and political." And according to Noonan they STILL don't grasp the magnitude of what she terms, "the scandal that was, in my view, the worst thing EVER to happen in the history of the American church."
"They (simply) do not understand what a mother and father go through, when their son is sexually violated: how it scars the child, steals his soul, breaks his heart. They TRY to understand, but they fail. They don't even seem to understand how the scandals happened in the first place. When the first priest violated the first child and they didn't throw him out - that's how it started."
And this, Noonan sadly concedes, is "inescapably part of (John Paul's) legacy . . . the unhappiest portion of what he left behind . . . (and) part of what his successor will now have to heal."
The silver lining in the lingering dark clouds - according to Noonan: The damage that's been done to the church "just may raise the standing of the clergy largely untouched by the scandal - namely American nuns."
"An old nun told me recently," Noonan writes, "that in her view, one reason why the sex scandals happened is that nuns and priests don't work as closely together anymore. `We weren't there to watch them,' she said. Nuns used to be there, watching what was going on in the cardinal's house, and serving as a `corrective' to the cardinal's thinking."
"If I were one of the men running the church," says Noonan, "I'd start elevating the nuns, and conferring with them seriously."
The author closes this chapter (titled "The Great Shame") with a piercing observation that: "The more old fashioned the `habit' - the more Catholic the nun: A nun in a veil probably prays (more often); a nun in a two-piece suit with nothing on her head but a gray crew cut . . . is somewhat more likely to be thinking of `spirit winds' and new ways to refer to Jesus as "She."
According to Noonan, "NOTHING helps the world more than good nuns." And "now's the time" she believes "to upgrade their title - from `Sister' to `Mother.' For that is what they are."
"They mother children in schools, and young girls in stress; they mother great institutions . . . (like the Sisters of Life in New York) and they are as much `mothers' to the flock, as priests are `fathers' - sometimes more."
Peggy Noonan has "hard advice" for the church `fathers': She recalls her address to a "handful of bishops meeting in Washington," where she urged them to take drastic but necessary steps:
"Tomorrow - first thing - take the mansions (you) live in and turn them into schools for children who have nothing. And take the big black cars (you) ride in, and turn them into school buses."
Noting that their meeting was "across the street from The Hilton Hotel" Ms Noonan told the bishops "it would be a good thing for them to find out where the cleaning women at the Hilton lived, and go live there in a rent-stabilized apartment on the edge of town . . . and take the subway to work like other Americans," (so that) "those people could talk to `a prince of the church' about the problems of their faith . . . how hard it is to reconcile the world with their beliefs and faith . . . and you could say (to them) `Buddy, ain't it the truth!' "
Just when you think Noonan's suggesting the church divest itself "of its beautiful art, cathedrals and paintings, and gold filigree" - Peggy says, `No way!'
"We are not Puritans, and not Protestant: Catholicism is, among other things, a sensual faith and (this is) OUR way to love and celebrate the beautiful . . . art inspires, and helps us reach."
"But cardinals," she reminds the `fathers,' are shepherds. "And shepherds don't live in mansions!"
This is, in every sense, a bright and beautiful book - "highly recommended" reading for the `mothers' as well as the `fathers' of today's (North) American church.
on December 7, 2005
Two nights ago, I heard such great praise for this book that I made a mad dash across town to go to Barnes and Noble to buy a copy (I barely got in the door as the store was closing!) Ms. Noonan writes so well and with such admiration (which I share), that I find myself going through the book at a breathless pace. Since my husband is currently reading one of her other books (What I Saw at the Revolution), we are getting a double dose of this brilliant writer.
I am a Mormon, but I thought Pope John Paul II was chosen by God at this particular time to accomplish the great things that he did. Peggy Noonan's short but majestic contemplation of the late and great pope is probably the best summation of his life and appeal that I have come across. She writes like a dream, as usual. I especially liked her personal story of how John Paul led her to again to feel the Spirit and return to a religious way of life. This book rings very true for me, and I would urge anyone with an interested in spirituality and Christianity to read it.
on February 11, 2006
I have often enjoyed Peggy Noonan's work and this is no exception. Her attempt to capture the essence of arguably the most important figure in the 20th century in this short remembrance is largely successful. She is very effective in expressing the impact JPII had in her life and how she, as a result, grew closer to God during his long tenure as Holy Father. Many young adult Catholics have known no other Pope and the sense of void without him is considerable. Yet, this burden is lightened by sharing our memories and testimonies, and seeing him revered by the whole world. While this book is above all comforting and inspiring, the author does not neglect pointing out the shortcomings of the church during JPII's watch. The most notable failing being the tragic sexual abuses that occurred in the American Catholic Church and the anemic response by church leaders. Nevertheless, we are ultimately encouraged that God's providential plan continues unabated and are buoyed by the sense that our new Holy Father Benedict XVI is another man of immense presence, dignity and fidelity.
on January 18, 2006
Peggy Noonan, former Reagan speech writer and weekly columnist for the Wall Street Journal, has penned a poignant tribute to our beloved Holy Father, the late John Paul II. Just in time for Lenten spiritual reading. Just in time to honor the first anniversary of his passing into the arms of our Father.
What drove Noonan to love him is just that which drove us to love him-his call to us to "Be not afraid," his call to live the message of the Gospels and to love one another has we have been loved. In the foreword of her book she asks two questions: "Why do those of us who love him, love him?" and "How to explain it to those of us who did not or could not?" Noonan goes on to deftly answer those questions in her 235 page remembrance of an extraordinary man of our time.
She writes as if Heaven itself is driving her pen. She writes as if she is speaking to you alone, sharing her personal faith journey as well as countless world events in which John Paul's presence or opinion weighed heavily as in the case of Communist Poland or the end of the Cold War. Noonan gives us anecdotes and quotes from prelates, priests and leading Catholics and draws heavily from another scholarly source on the life of John Paul II, George Weigel, author of Witness to Hope. Her affection for John Paul is evident from the very beginning but not in a superficial or cursory sort of way. She explores his past, his priesthood in Poland and his ultimate rise to the papacy from near obscurity giving us moving glimpses of his soul and the love that motivated him each day of his life.
In his declining years, John Paul had grown weary of the constant speculation about the state of his health, and, with his usual sharp wit groused to an American cardinal, "Tell those American journalists the Pope doesn't run the Church with his feet."
"He is a victim soul," Noonan writes. "His suffering has meaning, it is telling us something." Precisely. That is why we wept for days, weeks even, because he left us with that precious gift of how to live: the Eucharist, prayer, love; and how to die: in God's way and in God's time.
From the opening chapter entitled, "I saw a Saint at Sunrise," to the concluding Chapter 15, "There is a Saint Dead in Rome," the reader is taken on a holy journey, a holy legacy of a humble man risen to greatness because he was not afraid.
on December 20, 2005
I have always been interested in the life of Pope John Paul and also admire Peggy Noonan; but I was MOST pleasently surprised at how inspirational this turned out to be! Peggy Noonan has a style of deep emotion so one can "feel" her work. She a master at writing and the bonus was to hear her voice, reading her own work.
on June 3, 2006
Several of the reviews here have covered what is contained in this book--a rememberance of John Paul the Great and his effect on our lives and also of Noonan's reflections and insightful (and appropriately stern) opinions on the American Catholic Church.
But what I want to point out to you is how much I enjoyed Noonan's spiritual honesty. So many times nowadays, our public figures do not or will not discuss their spiritual lives. It was refreshing to read a person of political influence (past in administrations and present as a wonderful writer) talk about their spiritual walk. Noonan talks about how God reached her in the most basic of places--her home and her work. And although I loved every scrap of information I was given on the life of John Paul II, this spiritual change, the love of God she had through the everyday was what I found had the most influence on me.
This is a lovely, gentle, informative and uplifting book. It is a book that looks the church in the eye and says, "Shape up!" with a well-reasoned and very insightful arguement. If you loved PJPII as much as I did, then you will love this book and find so much more. Buy it today; you will be glad you did.
p.s. and I'm not even Catholic--shhhhh--I'm orthodox, and I still loved it. ;-)
on March 14, 2006
As usual, Peggy Noonan's elegant writing gives a fitting tribute to an extraordinary life. Remaining close in style to "When Character was King," she evokes the reverence and love an entire generation of Christians felt for the Pope. The book is intensely personal; she spends a good part of the book discussing what John Paul II meant to her and how her life changed throughout his papacy.
While I enjoyed her approach, readers should be warned that this is primarily a well-written eulogy, and those looking for an in-depth chronology of the Pope's life should look elsewhere. If, like me, you are curious to know one Catholic's perspective on John Paul's greatness, this book could not be better.