"As the news [of John Paul's death] cascaded around the world, millions felt orphaned. In a world bereft of paternity and its unique combination of strength and mercy, John Paul II had become a father to countless men and women living in an almost infinite variety of human circumstances and cultures. That radiation of fatherhood . . . was rooted in the Pope's singular capacity to preach and embody the Christian Gospel . . . " (p. 25).
Millions of people will long be able to pinpoint where they were the moment, on April 2, 2005, when they learned that Pope John Paul II had returned to his Father. The masses that converged on Rome for his funeral were a "gathering of the family," as papal biographer George Weigel put it. But these were no ordinary papal obsequies; many Catholics experienced the unique and yawning personal loss felt when a father dies. "'You feel smaller when your father dies because he was strong and lifted you, carried you and taught you, and when he's gone, the room feels too big without him'" (p. 99).
God's Choice details the last days of Pope John Paul II and the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI. The book is both retrospective and prospective, trying to sum up the achievements of the Pope Weigel unabashedly (and rightly) calls "the Great," while seeking to anticipate the challenges facing his successor. Weigel argues that John Paul II rejuvenated the Church, making holiness exciting and appealing, especially to the young. He recaptured the true meaning of Vatican II, taking it back from those who hijacked the Council's "spirit" in the name of various dead end agendas. Weigel does not deny that the Church has problems but, in hindsight, the Church is 2005 is far more vigorous that some might have thought back in 1978.
As a title, God's Choice discloses Weigel's perspective: one cannot understand the Church apart from the primacy of God's Will and man's subsequent response. Karol Wojtyla's fiat led an actor to the priesthood and the papacy. Joseph Ratzinger's fiat led a successful priest-professor from the classroom to be Archbishop, and then from Munich to a lightening rod position in Rome, where he remained despite personal wishes to retire. Ultimately, that fiat led him to the Chair of Peter. As Weigel poignantly puts it:
Forty-eight hours before the Conclave of 2005 was sealed,the possible futures of Joseph Ratzinger came into focus. By September, the 78-year old Ratzinger would be back home in Bavaria-living with his brother Georg, surrounded by his beloved books, embarked on a retirement of writing and lecturing . . . . Or he would be marking his fifth month as pope. There is not the slightest doubt which future he would have preferred. God . . . had . . . other ideas (p. 259).
Weigel reveals his hand in calling Benedict's papacy "adventures in dynamic orthodoxy." The new pope will have to engage the siren songs of post-modernity, showing how they inevitably lead to shipwreck. He will have to challenge the reigning orthodoxies of contemporary western European thought, much like his namesake from Nursia did a millennium and a half ago. He should try to unleash the potentials of Latin America, which Weigel sees as encumbered by its zero-sum attitudes of victimization. Benedict is likely to speed up "reform of the reform" of liturgy.
The author's easy-going style makes him a joy to read. He blends a variety of styles (journalistic, daily diary reporting on the conclave, analytical) successfully, keeping the reading flowing. As with any book rushed out three months after a historic event, some things may be lacking (e.g., only in September did the Holy See publish its chronology of John Paul's last hours). And while Weigel is optimistic about Benedict XVI carrying on John Paul's legacy, he does not really consider whether Ratzinger, the introverted septuagenarian can engage with the people as effectively as did extrovert Wojtyla, who had the advantage of starting his papacy twenty years younger. All that said, the author shows himself more than able to provide us with a readable and sound interpretation of this new pontificate. Highly recommended.