As today is the Optional Memorial of Blessed John Paul II, I have reproduced my feature from the Easter supplement of the Catholic Herald in 2011, celebrating the literary output of one of the greatest popes in modern times.
Pope John Paul II is lauded for his contributions to theology, human rights, religious freedoms and the renewal of Catholic spirituality. What is often forgotten, is that he was first of all a poet and playwright, his theatrical roots stretching back to his boyhood. He acted in his first play at the age of eight, and this literary and thespian bent gave his papacy its unique flavour. It was his grounding in and love for theatre that no doubt contributed to his reputation of being something of a showman.
Although he was not the first pope to have written poems and plays, John Paul II was unique in that, unlike with his predecessors, his ordination to the priesthood did not put an end to his literary output. He remained a poet and playwright throughout his entire ministry. His final poem, the Roman Triptych, was written in the 23rd year of his papacy and is considered by many to be his spiritual last testament, contemplating the beginning and end of his reign as pope.
Meditating upon the Michelangelo fresco of the Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, John Paul II notes:
so it was in August, and then in October,
of the memorable year of the two Conclaves,
and so it will be again, when the need arises after my death.
Michelangelos vision must then speak to them.
Poetry accompanied John Paul II his entire life. Poetry became his means of expressing his personal feelings and experiences, his relationship to God, to his fellow man and to the world as a whole. It documents his spiritual journey from school pupil to pope, revealing the process of his maturing spirituality and attempts at self-definition. His poetry deals with a whole range of issues from friendships to problems related to his pastoral duties and obligations as bishop – in short, everything that became part of his experience.
John Paul II’s poetic sentiments were formed under the looming shadow of war and invasion. He was influenced by the revival of Polish Romanticism, which held that history had a spiritual core and that the political collapse of Poland over the 18th and 19th centuries had been caused by the deterioration of traditional national virtues.
Echoing a familiar Christian theme, redemptive suffering as a personal spiritual discipline, the great Polish romantics believed that redemptive suffering was also the national destiny. Poland was a Messiah among nations, whose political misfortunes signified a time on Calvary that would redeem the world and give rise to spiritual renewal. It was under the influence of this tradition and following the Nazi occupation in 1939 that John Paul II began writing his first poems and plays. By the end of 1940, he had written a trilogy, David, Job and Jeremiah, which all re-told a biblical story in the context of a key moment in Polish history. These plays were both examinations of the human soul and acts of resistance towards the occupiers, all three having political undertones.
John Paul drew parallels between the fate of Poland, being punished for losing its Christian roots and the punishments of Israelites for breakingtheir covenant with God. In 1939, he wrote in a letter to a friend: “The nation has fallen like Israel because it did not recognise he messianic ideal, its own ideal. Our liberation lies at the gate of Christ”.
In his poetry of the same era, we see the emerging figure of a man of great prayer and devotion. Over This, Your White Grave is arguably one of his most touching poems, written at the age of 19 and dealing with the premature death of his mother, in which his monologue displaying his feelings of longing, sorrow and melancholy is transformed into a simple prayer for his mother which expresses his gratitude for love. “O Mother, extinguished love… give her eternal peace.”The poem evokes the image of the young poet kneeling in prayer at his mother’s grave, giving thanks for her life and reconciled with the prospect of death. The remainder of his poetry written in the war years is similarly contemplative, displaying a mysticism and a turning inwards to God.
John Paul II responded to the horror surrounding him with a sense of detachment, but that is not to say that he was unaffected by it. In one of the poems from his later period he draws upon the time that he was forced to work as a manual labourer in a quarry. But his early poetry shows that at a time when it must have seemed like the apocalypse was nigh – his beloved father died, his friends were taken to concentration camps and he was risking his life by remaining a member of an underground theatre company –his only refuge in the Lord.
His later poetry, becomes increasingly ambitious in terms of language, further blurring the boundaries between thought and prayer.
Perhaps one of John Paul II’s greatest achievements as a playwright was having one of his plays, The Jeweller’s Shop, written in 1960, under the pseudonym of Andrzej Jawien, turned into a Hollywood movie, starring Burt Lancaster and Olivia Hussey. The story focuses upon the contrast of human relationships, love, marriage and family, encapsulating John Paul’s favourite theme, namely that love is difficult but one must continue to hope as our futures depend upon it. The play explores the concepts that would be later worked out more fully in his famous cycle of teachings that would become the Theology of the Body.
Above all, in his poetry and plays John Paul II showed an awareness of the mystical power of words. The idea of the “living word” both on stage and in poetry could transform reality by summoning the audience to moral action. He saw a correlation 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. Time and time again his work returned to the theme of the Eucharist, in the transformation of the bread and wine he saw the paradox of God continually both hiding and revealing himself.
“The Shores of Silence”, the first part of the poem, The Song of the Hidden God, loses none of its lyrical qualities in translation:
Learn from me, my dear ones, how to hide,
for where I am hidden I abide…
there is a Beauty more real
concealed in the living blood.
To use John Paul II’s own words, in a country wracked by occupation and war, his poetry really did sing of the hidden God, in a regime that recognised that the Catholic Church was the historic custodian of Polish national culture and identity and thus sought to destroy it.
In the New Evangelisation of the world called for by John Paul II, poets and playwrights, along with other artists had an important role to play. “Humanity in every age – and even today – looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny,” he once wrote. Artists were invited to follow his example and use their God-given gifts for the purposes of spiritual renewal, using their artistic quest for beauty, good and truth to transcend the physical and lead them back to their divine origins.
In his final poem, the Pope re-iterated his concept of the living word: that everything around us should proclaim God’s love, a love that was made as a promise before the dawn of time:
the sign of the Covenant
which the Eternal Word made with you
even before the world was created.
It is no surprise that his life ended with the most passionate and inspirational performance of all. He was no longer able to use the power of language but his death conveyed the drama of suffering and the mystery of love, beyond the power of the word to the Word itself.