A loving, tender portrait.
For readers who don’t want to plow through George Weigel’s hefty biography of John Paul II (Witness to Hope, 1999), this slender volume by former US Ambassador to the Vatican Flynn (A Public Body, 1998) is a good choice. The author first met the future pope in 1969. At the time, Flynn was a candidate for state representative in Massachusetts, and Karol Wojtyla (as he was then known) was the Archbishop of Krakow. Flynn left their first meeting wishing he could talk to him longer. Eventually, of course, Wojtyla became John Paul II, and he made another trip to Boston, where Flynn renewed the acquaintance. At that point Flynn began to “keep track” of the pope, following his visits to the US and his papacy more generally (one of the most moving passages of the book is Flynn’s description of the horror and anxiety he felt when the Pope was shot). While serving as mayor of Boston, Flynn was asked by President Clinton to serve as ambassador to the Vatican. After some hesitation Flynn accepted, in large part because he wanted to get to know John Paul. He did. As ambassador, he had the chance to discuss many important international issues (such as the Vatican’s relationship with Israel and the troubles in Ireland) with the pope, and he came to know him as something of a family friend. The author provides an insider’s portrait of John Paul, depicting him as both genuine believer and a shrewd politician. He describes the pope’s devotion to the Virgin Mary, and his attempt to respond to the Shoah. Above all, he humanizes him, painting a portrait of a sometimes-melancholy pontiff, a man who was concerned when Flynn’s son was hospitalized, a friend who seemed sad to see the ambassador leave in 1997.
Critics will charge, rightly, that this account smacks of hagiography—but taken for what it is (i.e., a personal memoir of an enigmatic and powerful man), it is deeply satisfying.