Pope John Paul II was a priest with a poet's soul.
True, some of his predecessors wrote poems and plays. The verses of Damasus (366-384) are inscribed on the walls of the catacombs. Before Pius II (1458-1464) became a priest, he was court poet to Emperor Frederick III, writing everything from erotic love lyrics to a Latin verse comedy.
Only John Paul, however, was a working poet and playwright throughout most of his priestly and pastoral career.
His play, , written under a pseudonym in 1960 while he was auxiliary bishop of Krakow, was turned into a , starring Burt Lancaster and Olivia Hussey, 20 years later. His final book of poems, , was published in 2003, the 23rd year of his papacy.
Wojtyla left the theater in 1944 to study secretly for the priesthood.
As he was being laid to rest last week, John Paul was justly feted for his contributions on human rights, religious freedom, and Catholic spiritual renewal
But it should not be forgotten that he was a significant religious poet and a lifelong man of the theater. And in many ways, his artistic background and temperament lent his papacy its distinctive character.
A new Polish romantic
The former Karol Wojtyla's poetic sensibilities were forged in the 1930s under the specter of invasion and war.
He had started acting at age 8. By high school he was winning a variety of male leads and was immersed in a serious repertoire that ranged from Greek tragedies and Shakespeare to Polish literary classics. During this period he even made a new translation from the Greek of Sophocles' Oedipus.
The future pope came under the tutelage of important figures in the pre-war Polish theater, and came of age during a revival of 19th-century Polish romanticism-a literary and cultural movement that mingled Catholic mysticism with a messianic nationalism.
The great Polish romantics—such as , and —believed that Poland had a God-given role to play in the world, that its political misfortunes represented a mysterious Christ-like suffering for Europe's sins, and that the nation would one day rise to lead the spiritual renewal of the West.
It proved a potent and inspiring vision for a new generation of Polish actors and artists living in increasingly apocalyptic times.
Following the Nazi invasion and occupation in September 1939, the 19-year-old Wojtyla began writing his first plays in this neo-romantic tradition. By the summer of 1940, he had written a loosely connected trilogy—David, Job, and Jeremiah—each a retelling in verse of a biblical story, set in the context of a critical moment in Polish history.
He developed a mystical Catholic notion of the power of human words and language.
He conceived these works as both explorations of the human soul and acts of cultural resistance to the Nazis. "Let theater be a church where the national spirit will flourish," he wrote to a friend at the time.
David has been lost. But at the time he described it as a long "dramatic poem" in which the ancient biblical king was portrayed like the legendary Piast, founder of the royal dynasty that ruled Poland from the ninth to the 14th century.
Job and Jeremiah likewise have political undertones. As Israel was punished with invasion and exile for violating its covenant with God, Wojtyla saw Poland being chastized for losing its Christian moorings.
"The nation has fallen like Israel because it did not recognize the messianic ideal, its own ideal," he wrote in another letter from 1939. "Our liberation lies at the gate of Christ."
Theater of rhapsody
Wojtyla had been forced by the occupation to leave college (he was a literature and language major) to take up manual labor in a quarry.
He continued writing and reading voraciously. In the summer of 1941 he and three other students, along with a brilliant director, Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk, co-founded an experimental underground troupe—"the Rhapsodic Theater."
Rehearsing on the sly, often by candlelight, they staged more than 100 clandestine performances in private homes and apartments in Krakow. They adapted works from the national repertory, turning them into subtle statements of moral defiance. Had they been caught it would almost certainly have meant the firing squad or concentration camp.
Rhapsodist productions were stark, minimalist affairs staged without props, scenery, costumes, or even make-up. A "set" might consist of a single, three-armed chandelier. The players "rhapsodized" in long soliloquies and terse dialogue, moving only in taut, mime-like gestures.
The effect was to create what Wojtyla would later call "a theater of the living word." It was a drama, not of outward events and actions, but of ideas, imagination, and inner struggle. The focus was on the recitation of the poetic word—with all its power to transmit truths and to stir human emotions and deeds.
Wojtyla left the theater in 1944 to study secretly for the priesthood. However, throughout his career in Poland he remained intensely interested in the theater.
In the first parish he was assigned to, in Niegowic, south of Krakow, he formed a theater company in which he served as director and at times an actor.
As a bishop during the communist era, he defended the rhapsodists frequently in essays and reviews written under a pseudonym for the nation's leading Catholic newspaper, The Universal Weekly.
In these writings he developed a mystical Catholic notion of the power of human words and language.
As he saw it, there was a deep connection between the poetic and theatrical word and the divine Word by which God created the universe and by which bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.
He believed that Poland had a God-given role to play in the world, that its political misfortunes represented a mysterious Christ-like suffering for Europe’s sins.
The "idea proclaimed with a living word" on stage, he suggested, also had the power to transform reality—by creating new thought-worlds and by summoning listeners to moral action.
Songs of the hidden God
His own plays and poems from this period—all written under various pen names-bear the stamp of his ambitious belief in the power of language.
Wojtyla had a unique voice and style, deeply religious and highly personal, limning the margins between thought and prayer.
As a poet, his themes were philosophical and existential: the human thirst for dignity; the meaning of work; the presence of God found in the beauty of nature; the wonders of human love as the gateway to divine love.
In a country suffering brutal occupation, Wojtyla was, in the words of one of his poems, a singer of the hidden God.
His poetry drew its vocabulary and imagery from Scripture. After the fashion of St. Ignatius of Loyola's spiritual exercises, Wojtyla often began with a dramatic imagining of a biblical scene that quickly became a spiritual lens through which he observed everyday human struggles and joys.
In a poem-cycle inspired by the story of the Cyrenean forced to help Christ on his way to Golgotha, Wojtyla includes a moving meditation written in the voice of an assembly line worker in an auto plant:
They stole my voice; it's the cars that speak.
My soul is open: I want to know
with whom I am fighting, for whom I live...
Just be back every day at six in the morning...
It is heady and difficult poetry. But Wojtyla is always trying to remove the manacles of his intellect—"to know even less, to believe even more."
Always in his work, Wojtyla returned to Catholic belief in the Eucharist. In the transformation of bread and wine he found the ultimate sign of the God who ever hides—and at the same time continually reveals himself.
In lines worthy of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Church's great bard of the Eucharist, Wojtyla sings in the voice of Christ:
Learn from me, my dear ones, how to hide,
for where I am hidden I abide....
[T]here is a Beauty more real
concealed in the living blood.
A morsel of bread is more real
than the universe,
more full of existence, more full of the Word—
a song overflowing, the sea,
a mist confusing the sundial—
God in exile.
All the world a stage
Direct lines can be traced between Karol Wojtyla's poetic and dramatic themes and his concerns as Pope John Paul II, especially in the formative years of his pontificate.
In his first homily as pope, delivered to the world on October 22, 1978, he quoted his hero, the romantic poet, Mickiewicz. And in his first encyclical, ("The Redeemer of Humanity"), he offered a long meditation on "the drama of present-day human existence" and the "mystery" of God's plan for history—themes especially found in his later plays.
His first cycle of weekly teachings, which came to be known as the "theology of the body," developed concepts worked out more than two decades earlier in his play, The Jeweler's Shop. ("Salvific Suffering"), and important early letter on the Christian meaning of suffering, in parts reads like a commentary on his play, Job.
Always in his work, Wojtyla returned to Catholic belief in the Eucharist.
The power of human love to reveal divine love—the underlying theme in his later plays and in much of his poetry—became a keynote of his papal teaching.
As a poet and playwright, he was preoccupied "to prove...that on the other side of all those loves that fill our lives there is Love!" as the lead character exclaims in The Jeweler's Shop.
As pope, he made it his mission to open the eyes of the world to this Love of God, which, as he said in Redemptoris Hominis, "has taken a form and a name—that of Jesus Christ."
His neo-romantic formation and his belief in the power of the living word to transform lives animated his struggle against both Soviet totalitarianism and the soulless materialism of the West.
In his far-flung travels, all the world became a stage from which he proclaimed this living Word.
In every country he visited, he encouraged extravagant, colorful celebrations of the local faith and tradition. It was all part of his belief in "inculturation"—that the Christian Word must be planted like a seed in every culture and find expression in song, dance, music, literature and art.
Only a man of the theater could have staged the dramatic events of this papacy—his historic visit to the Rome synagogue; his carrying of the cross on Good Friday 2000 in the Colosseum where many of the first Christian martyrs died; the spectacular World Youth Days.
As pope, he was also a lively and engaged patron of the arts. At the Vatican, he regularly screened films, hosted live performances, and welcomed artists and entertainers. His letters and addresses on the arts and the media fill a slender volume.
John Paul was passionately convinced that poets, writers, sculptors, painters, architects, musicians and actors had a crucial role to play in "the new evangelization" of the world.
"Humanity in every age—and even today—looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny," he wrote in a very personal letter to the world's artists penned on the final Easter of the 20th century.
He urged artists to see their talent and inspiration as gifts from God and to use these gifts for
the spiritual renewal of civilization.
Through their artistic search for beauty, goodness and truth, they would issue "a call to transcendence" to the men and women of their day—stirring them to wonder and awe, compelling them to follow the footprints of the divine found in the world back to their source in God.
Without a word
This is the path that John Paul is found taking in his final and perhaps finest cycle of poems, the elegiac Roman Triptych (2003)
In a kind of rhapsodic verse-pilgrimage, the poet is led from a dazzling sunlit stream to the Sistine Chapel, and finally, as if transported in a vision, to the hill outside Jerusalem where long ago Abraham was asked to sacrifice his only son, Isaac.
These are the songs of an aged poet at the end of his days, preparing for the not-too-distant time when all will be laid bare before the eyes of God—when "what is imperishable in me...stands face to face with Him Who Is!"
John Paul's final poems give us the portrait of an artist who has discovered the Eternal Word speaking in the rhythms of a mountain stream; who has found his story and ours written in the pages of sacred Scripture, spoken in a "riot of colors" on Michelangelo's walls.
One last time in these poems, the poet-pope comes to proclaim his living word-that everything around us should speak of God's love for us, a love that comes as a promise made before time began:
The pope who wrote more words than any before him, left without a word.
...existence itself as the outward sign of eternal Love....
The sign of the Covenant
which the Eternal Word made with you
even before the world was created.
In the end, the poet enraptured by the Word, the pope who wrote more words than any before him, left without a word.
At the window of his Vatican apartment, head bent to one side, no longer able to speak, he gave his most inspired performance—by his very presence conveying all the drama of human suffering and the mysterious passion of love.
He had passed over. From words to the Word.