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George Weigel, Catholic author and columnist, signs a book for Jackie Russ, a University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate student and resident of the St. John Paul II Newman Center in Omaha, following a March 11 presentation for students at the center. Photo by Mike May/Staff.

Saint’s biographer speaks at JPII Newman Center

About 30 students and staff at the St. John Paul II Newman Center in Omaha shared an informal discussion March 11 with a man who knew the center’s patron personally.

During an afternoon coffee, George Weigel, Catholic author, columnist and official biographer of St. John Paul II, shared stories about his working relationship with the pope while writing "Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II" and "The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II – The Victory of Freedom, The Last Years, The Legacy."

And an overflow crowd of more than 250 people attended an evening presentation by Weigel titled "The Souls of St. John Paul II," reflecting the many dimensions of the saint and his spirituality.

Weigel was the inaugural speaker for the St. John Paul II lecture series planned at the Newman Center. Speakers in the series will focus on the teachings of the late pope.

In the afternoon session, Weigel shared a discussion of what he learned working so closely with the pope over a 15-year period, including the assassination attempt on the pope’s life in Rome May 13, 1981, the 64th anniversary of the first apparition of the Blessed Mother at Fatima, Portugal.

"When he came to Fatima a year later to give thanks to Mary for his life, he gave an impromptu speech where he said, ‘in the designs of providence there are no mere coincidences,’" Weigel said.

"The bullet had missed the pope’s abdominal aorta by about three millimeters," he said. "The pope was not surprised by that. He said ‘one hand fired and another guided the bullet.’"

Weigel described how he began to see his "pre-John Paul II life" in a new light as a providential preparation for writing the pope’s biography, how he felt called to the project because he believed he could do a better job than an existing biography, and how the experience changed his life.

He advised students, "Be open to whatever promptings the Holy Spirit is putting before you and have the courage to pray and think those through. You never know where it’s going to lead you.

"The question we all need to put to ourselves at any given moment is, ‘what ought I be doing right now, or better yet, what does God want me to do right now?’" he said.

"Everybody has a vocation, so what is my vocational responsibility at this moment? There’s something the Lord has in mind for each of you."

During a question-and-answer session, Weigel noted that St. John Paul had a "robust sense of humor" as well as a "terrible sweet tooth."

"He also was fundamentally a happy man," Weigel said, despite his periods of the "dark night of the soul," an experience of spiritual emptiness as described by St. John of the Cross, and the physical and health challenges later in the pope’s life.

Weigel said John Paul’s young adulthood living in Poland under Nazi occupation during World War II while secretly studying for the priesthood was the formative experience of his life.

He compared those experiences to the tectonic forces within the earth which, through pressure, not only cause destruction, but also create diamonds – the hardest substance on earth that can cut through other materials and brilliantly reflect light like no other substance.

Through the "pressure cooker" of World War II, John Paul became a "human diamond," Weigel said, able to "cut through things that seemed impermeable, like the Berlin Wall, and reflect light into situations that no one expected light to flow into."

During the evening session, Weigel spoke about several dimensions of St. John Paul’s soul – highlighting his Polish heritage, his Carmelite and Marian spirituality, and his theatrical nature and view of human life as a drama.

Weigel also spoke of John Paul’s belief in a universal call to holiness involving the clergy and laity, the importance of apostolic service in answering that call, and his view that the true meaning of life can be found only in Jesus Christ.

Students appreciate personal stories of late saint

Students who might only have read George Weigel’s books or columns about St. John Paul II and other subjects and seen the late pope on television enjoyed an up-close look at both with Weigel’s visit to the Newman Center:

“I loved hearing the stories of John Paul II again,” said Ian Ostdiek, a University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) sophomore and member of St. Bonaventure Parish in Columbus. “One of the things I loved about him was that he challenged people to do things that were hard. Even with the hardships he went through, he loved everyone and was able to be kind while also challenging people.”

For Matt Capoun, a University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) graduate student and member of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Omaha, Weigel’s personal stories – such as the one about the late pope’s sweet tooth – were interesting and made him seem more relatable.

“It was neat to hear an insider’s perspective about the pope’s life and how he would take five minutes between meetings to pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament,” Capoun said. “We hear about how we should pray unceasingly, and I’m trying to work on that, but he seems like the pinnacle example of that.”

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