BRIGHTON — The leading biographer of Pope John Paul II delivered the keynote address at Boston College March 24 at a conference dedicated to the intellectual contributions of the late pontiff to the building of a new Church.
“John Paul made the Catholic Church the premier defender of the pursuit of reason in the 20th century,” said George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center whose book on John Paul II “Witness to Hope” was an international bestseller. “A fact that must have Voltaire spinning in his grave,” he added.
The conference “Truth, Life & Solidarity: Philosophical Perspectives on the Thought of Pope John II,” was sponsored by BC’s The Church in the 21st Century, said Timothy P. Muldoon, the center’s director.
In his 26 years as pope, John Paul II produced a wealth of encyclicals, letters and other writings of extraordinary intellectual depth and unprecedented subtlety, Muldoon said.
Weigel described John Paul’s intellectual career as a 50-year walk among the philosophers to the overflow audience at BC’s Devlin Hall. “That walk was an intrinsic part of his life as a priest.”
After the end of the second World War, John Paul became a philosophy professor at the University of Lublin, which was the only Catholic university allowed to operate behind the Iron Curtain, he said.
It was the only place between Berlin and Seoul where the questions of philosophy could be explored freely, he said.
As the archbishop of Kracow, John Paul led doctoral seminars for Lublin students at his official residence and remained an honorary member of the school’s philosophy department until his death, said Weigel.
After the brutal shocks of Nazism and Communism, John Paul recognized that the Church needed to respond to moral and ethical questions in a new language that acknowledged modern realities, Weigel said.
John Paul wrote that philosophy must re-discover the sense of awe of the truth or face another century of tears, he said. “He recognized that the world was going crazy and that all this awfulness was a product of defective ideas.”
Weigel was introduced by Joseph Bottom, the editor of First Things magazine, who said John Paul will be studied for years to come. “John Paul was trained as a philosopher, but he was really a mystic. He wasn’t opposed to philosophy, but it means that he could go places the philosopher could not go.”
Father Christopher K. O’Connor, a philosophy professor at St. John’s Seminary said Weigel did an admirable job analyzing John Paul’s theology and philosophy and the importance of both in the development of the 20th century. “It was very good,” he said.
Speaking after his address, Weigel said the late pope had been his friend for 13 years. “I miss him as a friend, as a father, and as someone with whom I had intense and genuine conversations.”
The late pope was a humble man, who would be surprised to learn the attention paid to his writings at the conference, he said. “He would roll his eyes.”