By Janel Rodriguez, 156 pages, Servant Books.
Meet John Paul II begins with the story of a French nun who believes she was cured of Parkinson's through the intercession of the late pontiff. After the pope's death, she and her sisters in their hope asked the pontiff to pray for her healing, something that happened. The story of John Paul II is the story of hope.
This simple book spends a little time on the pope's childhood, though unlike fuller biographies of the man, it fails to give a sense of the deeply traditional, rural, slow-moving, and Catholic culture in which he grew up. It does show to some extent the major male mentors in his first few decades, including his father, several priests, and pious laymen. As in any traditional culture, mentoring through the generations played a vital role in the maturation of the young man. Such a supporting environment that reinforced Catholic spirituality enabled the pontiff to grow into the faithful and strong leader so needed by the Church.
Though Rodriguez leaves much out of this short biography, she explains the central pillars of John Paul II's philosophical and theological outlooks exceptionally well: “Karol used phenomenology as a way of explaining ethics and the reality, meaning and importance of morality. Morality, he believed, is not a learned set of behaviors but the truth about how we are structurally made to be. Therefore, moral choices and actions are what give people the most emotional, spiritual and physical ... satisfaction.”
Rodiguez also makes the important point that as a university professor in Poland he avoided lecturing his students, and “instead engaged them in debates and discussions.” Echoing his leadership as Archbishop and eventually pope, his unique style originated from his deep-rooted belief in the dignity of humans, something reinforced by Vatican II.
John Paul II the Marian pope credited Our Lady of Fatima with saving his life in 1981 from Turkish gunman Ali Agca. As is well known, the bullet that so terribly damaged him is now in Fatima, in a twist of irony.
In addition to this prophet-like faith in God's protection, John Paul wrote about contemporary society, criticizing the Culture of Death in weighty, influential encyclicals such as Evangelium vitae. He had prophetically reached out to AIDS sufferers in the 1980s, when many were afraid of even touching them.
Most readers of Meet John Paul II already need no convincing of the greatness of the pontiff, though they are also reminded of his outreach to Jews, Orthodox Christians, and people of other religions, such as at the World Day of Prayer in Assisi. He continues to influence the Church and the world through the World Youth Day, which he began in 1984, and through his interpretation of Vatican II. With this last project, he strove to end drift and excessive experimentation. He reminded Catholics that Vatican II did not call for endless reformations and renewal for renewal's sake. Rodriguez briefly touches on all of these elements in her book.
While Meet John Paul II adds nothing new to the scholarly and biographical information on Pope John Paul II, it is worthwhile because much written about the late pontiff is excessively academic and philosophical, and therefore of little interest to casual readers.