Shortly after the death of Pope John Paul II on April 2, 2005, Henry Kissinger told NBC News that it would be difficult to imagine anyone having had a greater impact on the twentieth century than the Polish priest and bishop who, on the night of his election in 1978, had described himself as a man called to Rome “from a far country.” Kissinger’s assessment was all the more striking in that the former U.S. secretary of state – himself a consequential figure in modern history – had no religious or philosophical stake in the life, thought, and action of Karol Józef Wojtyła. A decade and a half later, it is still worth pondering just what Kissinger’s extraordinary tribute might mean. If John Paul II was indeed the emblematic human personality of the twentieth century, why was that the case? And what was the relationship between the achievement of the Polish pope – for both the Church and the world – and the heroic virtue the Catholic Church formally recognized in him when he was canonized as Saint John Paul II on April 2, 2014?

In a conversation in the papal apartment in March 1996, John Paul II said, of previous biographers’ efforts to tell his life story, “They try to understand me from outside. But I can only be understood from inside.” He knew by then that he was a figure a historic consequence. Yet his story, he insisted, was one that could only be read from the inside out through the prism of his soul, if those who sought to understand him and his accomplishment were to truly grasp what made him tick. So on this twentieth anniversary of the publication of Witness to Hope, revisiting the soul of St. John Paul II will set the story of his life through the year 2000 in its appropriate frame.

Karol Wojtyła, the man who became John Paul II, had an intensely Polish soul: not only in the sense of a personality formed by a particular ethnic experience, but in the larger sense of a soul formed by a distinctive history and culture. Born in 1920, he was a member of the first generation of Poles born in an independent Polish state since the late eighteenth century; but it was the Polish national experience between the elimination of Poland from the map of Europe in 1795 and the restoration of its national independence in 1918 that was decisive for forming the soul of John Paul II. For during those 123 years in the wilderness – years when “Poland” did not appear on any map of Europe – Poland-the-nation survived the vivisection of Poland-the-state through its culture: its language, its literature, and its Catholic faith….

The above comes from a May 8 story on Catholic World Report site. This essay is adapted from the preface to the 20th anniversary edition of George Weigel’s Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, published by Harper Perennial.