Remembering Pope John Paul II

Author Peggy Noonan has written a new book, "John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father." She discussed the late pope, Catholicism and a Christmas message with George Will on a holiday edition of "This Week." Following is a transcript of the interview.

Will: Peggy Noonan, in an astonishing 25 months, the world elevated two former actors to high offices: Pope John Paul II to the Vatican, the papacy; the American electorate put Ronald Reagan to the presidency. You worked for Ronald Reagan. You obviously revere Pope John Paul II. How are they alike?

Noonan: Oh, my gosh. They were compelling. They were big. They only seemed to represent what they believed in. When they walked into the room, they brought that with them.

They were also, interestingly enough, part of a little cluster of greatness, I think, that rose in the late '70s-early '80s -- John Paul, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher -- not at all an actress. But why three of them, I think, understood the power of embodying your belief and bringing it forward, they also understood the power of not carrying what the New York Times thinks of you. They understood the power of doing what you are certain is correct, moving forward.

Will: One theme of your very personal and intense book is that the Pope changed your life. How?

Noonan: I became a -- I don't know how to describe it -- an ardent or a loving or an engaged Catholic in the time that he was the Pope during that 26 years. When you, in the modern world, want to become a Catholic, and want to seriously embrace what you have been somewhat distractedly believing, you don't necessarily know where to go or who to turn to for advice and leadership.

I wound up thinking, "Well, there's that old guy in Rome. He's the Pope. He must know a few things." I wound up reading his encyclicals. I wound up watching him. I mean, this was the Pope of the great media era. He was all over TV and radio, and eventually he was on the Internet.

A Solemn Woodstock?

Will: His death -- protracted and in a way public death -- followed by that astonishing funeral, may have been the most important event of 2005.

Let me read what you wrote about this. You said, "The funeral itself may have been the greatest evangelical event since Gutenberg printed the Bible." And you said, "Europe came. Europe took to the streets. Europeans may, just may, have come back from that funeral a newly heartened people." Could that be they would wish being the father of your thoughts, that that was such a transformative event?

Noonan: Maybe it is, but think about this: we all know Europe is post-Christian. We know Europe is post-Catholic. We know the church is dead in Europe ...

Will: Maybe pre-muslim ...

Noonan: Yes, indeed it may, but think about this: This old pope dies. He'd been there for 26 years. He'd been dying in public for a half a dozen years, old, bent, suffering. He was off everybody's radar screen, really. He dies -- it was like the death of Franco. He'd been dying for a long time, and then one day it was true.

What happened? There was a moment of silence, and then Europe erupted.

Three to 4 million people engulfed the streets of Rome, so many of them young people -- I saw bags and backpacks on. It was an amazing uprising, and what did those people say -- the 3 to 4 million?

Rome eventually said, "Stop coming, there's no more rooms in the inn." They looked at the Vatican, and they said, "Santus subitum, make him a saint." And they said, "Magnus, Magnus, the great, the great." That was a spontaneous outpouring, to my mind, of something within people's hearts, something that had been pierced by that old man who even the guys in the Vatican didn't know had touched people the way he had.

Will: Meaning no disrespect. It was a kind of solemn Woodstock -- that is, it was a youth conclave ... (laughter) ... a youth conclave, and it was solemn, and it was spontaneous -- Woodstock without rock bands, Woodstock with something else. But was it a ephemeral is what I'm asking?

Noonan: I don't see it as a ephemeral. I see it as a sign of something that is true, and something that cannot be willed away. People have something in their heart that wants them make something higher and better, and it makes them want to search for the truth.

Catholicism in America

Will: But our nation -- which is an anomaly among developed nations and that is the most modern and the most religious among nations -- even here, 58 percent of Catholics say they can be a good Catholic while disregarding church teachings on contraception, and the majority say the same thing on abortion, and the vast majority of known Catholics say the same thing regarding abortion. In what sense does the teaching power -- which is part of the papacy's function -- does it still hold purchase on American Catholics?

Noonan: American Catholics, I think, have been doing their own way for at least 50 years now. There is divergence of opinion within the church here, as you know. It's also torn up by a crisis and a scandal, as you know. There's been a lot of cafeteria Catholicism going on, which itself is almost a tradition, if you will.

Will: Referring to the crisis of sexual abuse of children by the American Catholic clergy, you said the worst crisis in the history of the American church happened on John Paul II's watch. How? What failed?

Noonan: I think the American church was a little laggard and not colorful enough in explaining to Rome the problem they had. I also think when they started to explain to Rome the problem they had, the old Pope himself ultimately did not understand it.

Why? I think that he had no category for, and no way of intellectually imaging, a world in which priests -- who he knew to be heroic fighters of Nazism and Communism -- priests were men who were heroic. He could not imagine priests operating in a racket where they sexually molest teenage boys.

What a racket. What a scandal. What a shame. That old Pope had no categories for it, and I think could not imagine it. He thought if we go down this road where we remove all these priests, we'll wind up with gossip and rumor, removing priests just as they did in Communist Poland in the '50s and '60s.

Will: This Pope was the first, surely pope to send out text messages to his flocks' cell phones. If he is in heaven-- and the roaming charges aren't prohibitive on those cell phones -- and what would you text message him about the condition of his people, Christmas Day 2005?

Noonan: Oh, my gosh. Well, what he would text-message us was "Don't forget what I said. Be not afraid." Don't be afraid of anything. Don't be afraid of yourself. Don't be afraid of your own failure. Don't be afraid of your ambivalence and inability to reach God. Keep trying. Be not afraid. That's what he'd tell us. What would I text-message back? "Thank you, Holy Father. Please pray for us. Go talk to Jesus about us. Oh, please, go talk to Mary."

Will: Thank you, Peggy Noonan.

Noonan: Thank you.