Just wow. It's hard to review a book that is not only the sequel to the magnificent Witness to Hope, but also stands alone as a thriller spy novel (it's true!), a full course in Roman Catholic theology, an entire seminar in the ecumenical movements of the late 20th century, and a history text of, oh, the whole world.
But that's what George Weigel's The End and the Beginning: John Paul II -- The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy is.
Weigel's sources make this book an irreplaceable account both of the last years of the pontificate and of the decades-long struggle between Karol Wojtyla (later John Paul II) and the communist leadership of Eastern Europe. Documents released after John Paul's death in 2005 provide new insight into the role he played in the fall of communism as well as the extent into which the Soviet Union's spy network infiltrated the daily life of the Church at that time. No other book, with the exception of Whittaker Chambers' Witness, has opened my eyes quite so much to the realities of life under (or with) communism.
But the book is less about John Paul II than it is about God's action in the Roman Catholic Church in the last half-century. In this, Weigel does with John Paul II's life precisely what John Paul II himself would have wanted: He uses the pope to point us to Christ.
So, although I know you've all finished your Christmas shopping (haha!), this is a great addition to your list. I'd especially recommend it to anyone (especially guys) who wonder why the heck they should still bother or think about bothering to be Catholic.
I'll leave you with this poem, written for John Paul II by his fellow Pole (and one of my all-time favorite poets), Czeslaw Milosz:
"Ode for the Eightieth Birthday of Pope John Paul II"
We come to you, men of weak faith,
So that you may fortify us with the example of your life
And liberate us from anxiety
About tomorrow and the next year. Your twentieth century
Was made famous by the names of powerful tyrants
And by the annihilation of their rapacious states.
You knew it must happen. You taught hope:
For only Christ is the lord and master of history.
Foreigners could not guess from whence came the hidden strength
Of a novice from Wadowice. The prayers and prophecies
Of poets, whom money and progress scorned,
Even though they were the equals of kings, waited for you
So that you, not they, could announce urbi et orbi,
That the centuries are not absurd but a vast order.
You are with us and will be with us henceforth.
When the forces of chaos raise their voice
And the owners of truth lock themselves in churches
And only the doubters remain faithful,
Your portrait in our homes everyday reminds us
How much one man can accomplish and how sainthood works.
This review was written as part of the Catholic book reviewer program from The Catholic Company, and the reviewer received a free copy of the text in exchange for her opinion. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on The End and the Beginning.