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on April 5, 2005
If you are looking for a gauzy, sweet biography of Pope John Paul II in these days since his death on April 2, please look elsewhere. If you are interested in a frank and sometimes brutal look at his life and policies, read on!

In "The Pontiff in Winter," John Cornwell (author of "Hitler's Pope") casts his gimlet eye on Karol Woytila, the man who became Pope John Paul II, from his early years through the decline of his health and (Cornwell argues) papacy in the first years of the 21st century.

"The Pontiff in Winter" combines biography, history and analysis -- in more or less equal parts -- as it seeks to understand the Pope as a person, and the value of his teaching to the Church and mankind. Cornwell is absolutely unsentimental about his subject, giving praise where due, but zeroing in with devastating effect on the Pope's weakness and missteps. The multi-faceted man who emerges is both repelling and attractive: intelligent though not brilliant; a victim of totalitarians yet autocratic; an actor (even a bit of a prima donna) whose public, smiling persona masks a desire to be center stage; a man of true and extreme piety with a weakness for its more outlandish manifestations.

Cornwell sees John Paul as a man embodying maddening contradictions. A wily and successful fighter for freedom in his native Poland, John Paul II did not trust others (e.g., Archbishop Oscar Romero) to do the same. Claiming to support Vatican II, he gutted its central push to decentralize the papacy and increase collegiality among bishops. Advancing the Church's relations with Jews and Muslims, he nevertheless undercut that pose by denying the status of "Church" to non-Catholic religious bodies like the Anglicans. The seeming champion of women's dignity, he attempted to shut down discussion of the divisive topic of female ordination.

The book's extremely negative tone is its main weakness. Cornwell seems to take the Pope's faults personally. Still, there are very few places where the limitations of papal pronouncements can be aired with such erudition and passion. In the current atmosphere, in which dissent from Church teaching is equated with disloyalty, Cornwell's voice is truly prophetic, leading the mind to consider perspectives that are worth considering.
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VINE VOICEon April 9, 2005
Let me preface this review by saying I am not Catholic and though I have Catholic leanings I have resisted converting because of my liberal religious outlook. Seemingly, this is an outlook I share with Mr. Cornwell. I--like him--hold John Paul II in very high regard as a man of peace and one of the most influential agents of positive change in the past fifty years. On this aspect of his papacy, I feel Cornwell provides great examples and writes with appropriate zeal and praise.

However, the areas that are of concern to many non-Catholics, which include ordination of women, contraception, marriage of clergy, and even papal infallibility, are presented in such a negative and sarcastic light that I fear no one will take them seriously. Cornwell claims to be a reform-minded Catholic. Unfortunately, his presentation of real concerns for thousands of Catholics and non-Catholics alike are handled with such vitriol that this book will prove to be more divisive than unifying.

Ultimately, I feel that in spite of differences in belief between the author and the Pope this book could have been infused with a great deal more respect for a man who will be missed by millions. After all, in Cornwell's own admission, John Paul II has done more for peace in the world than anyone. Somehow, it seems that after saying that about someone repeatedly referring to him as "old boy" is entirely inappropriate. I had hoped for an unbiased (although this is seemingly impossible when writing about religion) and thoughtful portrayal of the strengths and weaknesses of John Paul's papacy. Unfortunately, I got a venomous diatribe.
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VINE VOICEon April 2, 2005
Knowing the Holy Father was not going to be around much longer I finally read and finished this book yesterday (the day before he passed). The author does let us have a glimpse at this pope and helps bring up questions of things that may be glossed over or even covered up by his assistants and biographer. By the time I was done reading this, I felt well versed in some of the failures of the pope; places where he was hypocritical and others where he might have done more.

Having said this, however, the author's bend seems to focus so much on that negative (until the end) that one could almost forget the good that this pontiff brought to the world.

All in all, a very good book, lots of information and very thought provoking. It is an honest look about the pontiff and the papacy definitely without being a white-wash.
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on February 25, 2005
I must say that of all the book reviews that I have ever read on Amazon, the reviews for this book have been the most disappointing. It seems that when it comes Catholicism generally or the Holy Father more specifically, we lose our abilities to be reasonable and revert back to what it was like to fifteen when anything you didn't like was not good at all. Newsflash: Citizen Kane is a great movie whether you liked it or not.

Of course, I am not comparing this book (in any way) to Citizen Kane, but it illustrates the point of previous reviews. You either love this book if you are critical of the Holy Father's last decade, or you hate the book if you believe that the Catholic Church is under firm leadership under John Paul II.

I first came across this book while searching for a book to read at then Anglo-American bookshop in Rome. As all English books in Rome are expensive, I instead bought and read John Cornwell's "A Thief in the Night," an excellent book that explore the death of John Paul I. I was impressed with Cornwell's impartiality, and thought I would give "The Pontiff in Winter" a read when I returned to the states and would not have to pay 30 Euros for it.

In all, I found Cornwell's "Pontiff" to be a highly critical, but not a highly unfair book. The first half of the book deals with JPII's life prior to becoming pope, and if anything, it was highly positive. I am not a fan of the hagiography, and was pleased that Cornwell presented Wojtyla in human terms rather than in a saintly profile. It was only during the second half of the book when Cornwell becomes critical, sometimes overly so. If I have a criticism of this writing or this book, it is the way that Cornwell would occasionally throw along an unneeded adjective to increased his pathos. For example, rather than comment on the pope's shaking hands, Cornwell might right as to his, "uncontrollably shaking" hands. Anyone who has survived a freshman composition class at a university worth its salt can recognize Cornwell's (not well disguised) rhetorical ploys.

As to the content, I believe that any open-minded Catholic would agree that we are worried about the Holy Father, and are concerned about how he can carry on in the face of such an illness. Cornwell clearly articulated other concerns, regarding such topics as birth control, women in the priesthood, and the Vatican's reaction to September 11th, but at times I felt that he placed too much emphasis on the negative aspects of JPII's decisions, rather than the positives that have come from them.

In all, I found that this was an engaging, and well-written book, and one that I can recommend to anyone who has the ability to be critical of their faith in a fair way. It does not provide any answers, but it does ask questions, and I believe that those questions are good ones to ask. Please don't think that my recommendation of this book means I'm not a Catholic. I am, and the highlight of my three weeks in Rome early in 2005 was a papal audience on 19 January. The Holy Father was in good spirits, spoke strongly, and it was a most amazing experience that will be long remembered.
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on September 12, 2008
I am thoroughly enjoying the audio CD of the Pontiff in Winter by John Cornwell. The reader, John Lee, speaks the narrative eloquently so it is easy to listen to while driving in the car. The story describes little known facts about Pope John Paul II as well as other Popes and important Vatican figures, both positive and negative. It exposes and discusses timely events such as the Priest Pedophile scandal and other political news and events that are rarely addressed in public. It is interesting to hear a behind-the-scenes version.
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VINE VOICEon June 28, 2007
Cambridge scholar George Holmes analyzes the long reign of Pope John Paul II, the former Karol Wojtyla. He discusses the pope's accomplishmnets and his views on controversial issues including birth control and abuses by the clergy. The author seems to be making his case for critizing the centralization of papal power. Though he does show us both the good and the bad affects the policy of this pope has had on the world. We see him as pope and a person. The book is well-written, but does not answer any questions. I am pleased I read a library copy. But I do suggest you read it and make up your own mind.
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on April 19, 2015
Another interesting book on the church by Cornwell.
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on January 23, 2005
The author has given a very balanced look at the Pope, a human being who has both achieved great things and yet has also hurt the Church in some ways. Those who feel it's disloyal to point out the obvious downside along with the great achievements are living in denial. No one is perfect. In particular, on the plus side, Cornewell points out this Pope's considerable influence on the fall of Communism. This Pope's weakness has been an autocratic style of centralized power that has weakened the Church overall by denying the value of diversity, democracy and local control. He makes a strong case and yet is always respectful of this remarkable Pope. Highly recommended.
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on April 21, 2008
It's one thing to disagree with the Pope it's another to write a mean spirited pack of half truths. I bought this assumeing it was a biography of the Popes final years. WRONG it is an angry polemical agenda driven anti-JPII book. Waste of my $.
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on January 3, 2005
John Cornwell has written a temperate, judicious and very helpful biography of the present pope. There is a human tendency to mystify all authority figures, and the Roman Church is not immune from this tendency. Cornwell offsets this tendency, e.g., as exemplified by George Weigel's biography of John Paul II, which easily qualifies as hagiography. (I am a Roman Catholic priest-theologian, ordained 42 years ago.)
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