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By Virginia Stem Owens


A Well-Versed Pope

A daredevil skier and sports enthusiast, he organized underground resistance to the Nazis during World War II. The first book he published was filled with sex; a recently published book-length interview with him enjoyed a long run on the bestseller list. A compulsive globetrotter, he frequently visits exotic locales. The rich and famous come to him; actresses from his checkered past still write to him. No, not Ernest Hemingway. Karol Wojtyla, a.k.a. Pope John Paul II.

The most influential pope in the twentieth century, John Paul has also been one of the most visible public figures in our media-saturated era. Yet for all that, one of the most striking facts about him has been little noticed. He is, most improbably, a poet.

Historically, popes have been many things: administrators, pastors, politicians. But not since the fifteenth century, when Pius II wrote erotic verses for the court of Frederick III, has the Roman church had a poet for a pope. Indeed, John Paul II's wide-ranging cultural abilities give new meaning to the term Renaissance man. He is fluent in seven languages and holds two doctoral degrees, one in theology and one in philosophy. Though the press often caricatures him as a hidebound traditionalist, he is so in touch with his times that he postponed his coronation till noon so as not to interfere with a previously scheduled morning soccer match.

During his 17-year tenure as pope--twice as long as the eight-year average reign--he has piled up a long list of innovations. The first pope ever to enter a Jewish synagogue, to call on a U.S. president in the White House, or to tour a communist country, he is also the first to install a monastic group within the Vatican: a convent of eight Poor Clares from Assisi. He transformed papal fashion as well by wearing trousers under his vestments and white sneakers with papal-yellow laces--a gift from teenagers at Denver's World Youth Day.

On a more somber note, violence has provided John Paul another interface with the ...

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