A review of JP2 For Dummies appeared in this past week's National Catholic Register. The author of the review, Barry Michaels, misspelled my last name (C'mon, it is on the front cover, after all). As punishment for this error, I'm letting you read the review without having to register (no pun intended) to get it. I corrected the misspelling in my "cut & paste" job, but maybe next time "Barri" will get it right.
JOHN PAUL II FOR DUMMIES
John Wiley & Sons, 2006
384 pages, $19.99
Available in bookstores
You can’t spend more than a few minutes in a bookstore without noticing at least a few volumes from the popular For Dummies series. The distinctive black-and-yellow covers are hard to miss. Each book presents important information on a given topic in a way that’s fun to read and easy to understand.
New to the series is John Paul II for Dummies, a testimony to the impact the late Pope had even on popular culture. It is written by a team of three priests — Fathers John Trigilio, Kenneth Brighenti and Jonathan Toborowsky — all of whom are clearly unabashed fans of John Paul.
Sure enough, the book offers no information that’s not in several other well-known biographies, but that’s not the point. Here the Holy Father’s life and teachings are presented in a way that makes it all accessible to everyday readers. You don’t need a degree in theology or history to grasp what makes “JP2” such an important figure.
For example, one of the most daunting aspects of John Paul’s teaching is surely his theology of the body. This long collection of talks is loaded with dense language and heavy philosophical and theological concepts. John Paul II for Dummies admirably summarizes its main ideas in a few engaging pages.
We read: “Like a sacrament, which is an outward sign of divine grace, the human body is the external manifestation of the invisible soul. The person, however, is both body and soul. If I intentionally pull the hair on your head or if you slap my cheek, we’re insulting the person, not just causing the body pain. The dignity offended is in the person. Someone kicks your leg under the table and apologizes, saying, ‘Sorry, I thought it was the table,’ and you respond, ‘No, it was me.’ The me or I is the person, and any part of your body is an extension of your personhood.”
One especially helpful aspect of the book is the authors’ effort to put the events of the Pope’s life into historical context. This helps readers understand the meaning and importance of what goes on. For example, before describing Bishop Karol Wojtyla’s work at the Second Vatican Council, we get a brief history of the council. We find out how it came to be, how it was carried out and what it did and did not do.
“It was clear from day one that the Pope did not intend in any way, shape or form to alter, revise, change, remove or add to the ancient deposit of faith,” we read. “The content of faith (in other words, doctrine) and the celebration of faith (sacraments) would remain intact, while the mode and manner in which they are explained and conducted would adapt to modern expressions and experiences. The what would remain the same, but the how would be another matter.”
In a similar way, the book provides fine explanations that help readers understand Polish culture and history, World War II and Soviet communism. One thing that would have made the book even more of a “go-to” resource is a list of the many teaching documents of John Paul II.
One chapter does impressively explain the “top 10” documents promulgated by him, but he produced so many more that this only begins to scratch the surface of this important teaching pontificate.
We owe thanks to God for the gift of John Paul II and — in a special way on May 18, his birthday — thanks to the authors of this book for helping us understand what a truly great gift he was.