Pope John Paul II: An Intimate Life - The Pope I Knew So Well
Caroline Pigozzi, international reporter for Paris Match magazine, was allowed unprecedented access to Pope John Paul II --- and it shows in this remarkable account of Karol Wojtyla's 1978 ascendancy from archbishop of Krakow to become the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, a position he held until his death in 2005. Pigozzi offers readers a detailed look at the daily life of the pope, something few people ever see.
While Pigozzi is clearly enamored of John Paul II, she manages to maintain her credibility as a journalist by providing an even-handed, if gentle, perspective on who he was and how he impacted not just Roman Catholics but also the entire world. And while she doesn't ignore the larger-than-life scenes from his travels that most people are familiar with, it is when she escorts us out of the papal limelight and into papal privacy that the book really shines.
We follow the author into the pope's private living space, his 20-room apartment, and his public office space, a 20-room complex identical in layout to his apartment. (One amusing tidbit: the pope replaced the ornate and no doubt priceless artwork that adorned the walls of his apartment with family and other personal photographs as well as gifts from Polish pilgrims to the Vatican.) And we meet his personal staff, a tight circle of Polish nuns and priests who served him, connected him with his homeland --- and somewhat suspiciously protected him from the intrusion of outsiders. As a French journalist, Pigozzi certainly qualified as an outsider, but John Paul II's warm reception of her on every occasion overrode their wariness.
Pigozzi also takes us aboard a commercial Alitalia jetliner specially outfitted for one of the pope's many overseas trips --- a trip 18 months in the planning, just like all the others. And she gives us a look at one of several Popemobiles that await the pontiff's arrival at different spots on the globe. Her skill as an observer and her attention to detail elevate this book above other biographies of the pope, as does her conversational writing style.
That said, the book could have been improved by making it more accessible to non-Catholic readers. The problem was not so much the abundance of Catholic and Latin terminology and references to Catholic artifacts and rituals --- after all, that's to be expected in a book about a pope --- as it was the lack of explanation of those terms, artifacts and rituals. For a Protestant, I'm fairly well-versed in all things Catholic, but even I got lost more than once in all of the church-specific details. My passing acquaintance with Latin helped at times, but readers who never studied the language will be left in the dark.
Still, the book makes for a great read for anyone who loves a good biography, Catholic or not. It's easy enough, I suppose, to ignore the parts that cry out for further explanation, though I find it frustrating when essential information is missing. Catholics should love this book --- just as they loved the pope who discarded many of the trappings of the papacy in favor of becoming more accessible to followers of Christ everywhere, earning him the epithet "the people's pope."
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on September 10, 2008