A few days ago, I obtained (via the kindness of a stranger) a copy of God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church by George Weigel (this on the advice and review of Mr. Blosser at Against the Grain). While I sometimes admire the prose of Mr. Weigel, I have to admit that I do not share his reservations about Pope John Paul II theology. However, despite their obvious disagreements, Mr. Weigel obviously has enormous respect for the late great Pontiff.
The first part of this books is a recounting of the Papacy of John Paul II, on of the longest in history. In this recounting Mr. Weigel analyzes both the person and the writings of John Paul II and what effect they have had and may have on the Church. The analysis is insightful and helpful without being particularly detailed or prolix. Mr. Weigel knew the work and perhaps the person of John Paul II well and it shows in his exposition and analysis.
The book is oddly constructed, starting with the illness, decline, and death of John Paul II and then seguing back into the career and concluding this portion with a view of the great pontiff's funeral. This material comprises about forty percent of the book and sets the backdrop against which he will spell out the reign of Benedict XVI.
Now, I suppose I should start by saying that while I believe the title of this book--that is, Pope Benedict XVI is God's choice-- I can't claim to be overwhelmed with the present pontiff. I bear him no ill will, and I accept the judgment of others (including Mr. Weigel) that our present Pope is in every way suited for the position and conducting himself magnificently. Let's face it, John Paul the Great would be a hard act to follow no matter who took the position. So I start with some reservations about the present pontiff that are sometimes only exacerbated by news reportage. Mr. Weigel starts with no such onus. The portion of the book about the conclave is utterly fascinating--giving a diary of the events surrounding the conclave itself. I was a little uneasy about this material as the conclave is supposed to be absolutely secret and the publishing of this kind of diary, which while not an insiders look, still exploits the rumors and leakages that occurred seems a little problematic. Set that aside for the moment, the account is very interesting. Our present Pope went in with a sizable majority and eventually emerged as Pontiff. Looked at one way, this speaks well for the state of the Church--if those who voted for him did so out of the vision they had of the Church, this bodes well. If they voted out of mundane political reasons, it says nothing whatsoever about the state of the Church (because this has been involved since the beginning) but much about the guidance of the Spirit. We cannot presume to judge the motives of those voting, so either way, it was a manner of leading by the Holy Spirit.
After the tale of the conclave, we get a brief biography and précis of Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI's career. Again, Mr. Weigel handles this with some aplomb--it is insightful without being boring and it touches nicely on the points where our present pope might be deemed "controversial." These include his opinions on such matters as liberation theology and the Boff case.
Finally, Mr. Weigel stares into his crystal ball and gives us a view of the agenda and the possible futures of the Church. His guess is as good as any, and far better than my own. This section plays nicely off the section that discusses the state in which John Paul the Great left the church for good and ill.
The book is deftly constructed, mostly well written. (Although I must confess to being taken aback but an absurdly ugly neologism--civilizational. This is the kind of thing that happens when editors dare not touch the work any more because you have become too popular.) While not particularly a Ratzinger partisan, this book helped me to better understand the man and the issues surrounding him and to dispell some of my concerns about our present pontiff. In short, it is an excellent introduction to the new pontificate, supplying background on both the late Pontiff and our present Vicar of Christ, deftly comparing and constrasting the two. (Were I to guess I would say that Mr. Weigel falls at least a little on the "Ratzinger" side of the Wotyla/Ratzinger continuum; whereas I am squarely in the Wotyla side of that continuum.)
For fans and detractors alike, this book may add fuel to the fire. What it does an exemplary job of is showing the state of the Church in the transition between these two pontificates. Pope Benedict XVI has a hard act to follow, and unless God grants him extraordinary longevity, a relatively shorter pontificate in which to exercise his influence. May the Holy Spirit guide and bless him (and us) all along the way.
Highly recommended for all readers.