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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 modern world. Though not the first pope whose enemies have attempted to assassinate him, he is the first to have had the event captured on television. In 1981, he was shot twice at Saint Peter's Square by Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk who, according to New York Times reporter Tad Szulc, may have been acting for the Bulgarian secret police. On the first anniversary of Agca's attack, John Paul was again assaulted while visiting the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima to give thanks for his recovery, this time by a renegade Spanish priest with a knife.

Anyone familiar with Karol Wojtyla's early years, however, realizes that he is not a man to be diverted by fear of sudden violence. He has spent a lifetime enduring far harsher trials. He was born in the Polish village of Wadowice in 1920, just as the Red Army was advancing on Warsaw. When he was only nine, his mother died giving birth to a stillborn child. (One of his first poems, "Over this your white grave," is addressed to her.) Four years after his mother's death, his only sibling, a brother 15 years older, succumbed to an infection caught in the hospital where he worked.

The solitary boy lived alone with his aging father in their stark flat, subsisting on Karol Sr.'s army pension. Wadowice's public school was superb, providing eight years of Latin and five of Greek--as well as a social setting that included as a matter of course the town's large Jewish population. His Jewish schoolmate Jerzy Kluger has recently given us a glimpse of his years at the village public school in Gian Franco Svidercoschi's Letter to a Jewish Friend: The Simple and Extraordinary Story of John Paul II and His Jewish School Friend. The young Karol played goalkeeper on the school soccer team as well as serving as altar boy at the parish church. When a visiting cardinal, impressed by an essay he had written, asked if he might be a priest some day, he replied that he intended to study literature and the theater.

After Karol's graduation in 1938, the two Wojtylas moved into a basement apartment in Krakow so he could enroll in Jagiellonian University, the alma mater of the fifteenth-century astronomer Copernicus. A fellow student remembers that while Karol was religious, even pious, "religion was not his main interest in those days." Poetry was, along with acting in student theatrical productions.

But the following year, Poland was invaded by Germany. On September 6, 1939, Krakow was occupied by Nazi troops. The Wojtylas joined the river of refugees streaming eastward on foot, only to be turned back after 100 miles by news of the Russian invasion on that front.

Returning to Krakow, they found the university closed and 138 faculty members arrested. Hans Frank, Krakow's new German governor, announced that henceforth Poles would be slaves in the German empire. In order to avoid deportation to a labor camp and to support himself and his aging father, Wojtyla went to work first in the limestone quarry on the outskirts of the city, later in the factory furnaces where the limestone was turned into explosives.

Wojtyla also helped to organize an underground network of lectures after the universities were closed, setting up secret meetings around the city while avoiding the military-enforced curfew. To the Poles, maintaining their intellectual life was a means of cultural resistance against the Nazi occupiers. By 1942, the underground university had grown to 800 students.

In addition to work at the quarry and his clandestine studies, Wojtyla was a founding member of a drama company, the Rhapsodic Theater. This enterprise, too, was forced to operate covertly, a restriction that led to a dramatic form he later called "theater of the word." Because the company lacked a regular stage, lighting, costumes, and other theatrical accoutrements, they necessarily pared down productions to bare words and live voices. Wojtyla found it a particularly congenial form.

"The company discovered," he wrote in a postwar essay, "that the fundamental element of dramatic art is the living human word. It is also the nucleus of drama, a leaven through which human deeds pass, and from which they derive their proper dynamics." The technique focuses attention on meaning rather than method. The stark production, more akin to reading a novel than watching a play, gives the audience access to the characters' interior life in ways realistic theater does not.

While Wojtyla was working to salvage his city's intellectual life, he suffered yet another personal loss. Returning home from the quarry one day, he found his father dead. He knelt by the bedside all night in prayer. Some biographers have located his decision to become a priest at that point. Another major influence at this time came from a tailor, Jan Tyranowski, who formed a student discussion group that read Saint John of the Cross. Whatever the catalyst, in 1942 Wojtyla shifted his academic focus to theology with the intention of becoming a priest.

On August 1, 1944, the citizens of Warsaw, encouraged by broadcasts from the Red Army promising aid, staged an uprising against their German occupiers. The Nazis retaliated with wholesale slaughter. The archbishop of Krakow, fearing for his carefully nurtured band of seminarians, rounded them up and sequestered them inside his residence, even managing to have Wojtyla's name expunged from work records at the explosives factory so that no official trace remained of his existence. For the duration of the war, the seminarians lived and worked hidden in one room.

Besides saving a remnant of the clergy for the Catholic church in Poland, the plan may have preserved its future pope as well. During the war, almost 4,000 priests were imprisoned in Polish concentration camps. Most of them died there--a tragedy the reigning pope, Pius XII, did little to prevent.

The end of World War II did not bring the same relief to Poland that other parts of Europe enjoyed. As a Soviet satellite, Poland experienced scarcely more religious freedom than it had under German occupation. Church property was confiscated, religious education forbidden. Thus, after Wojtyla's ordination to the priesthood in 1946, he was sent to Rome to study at the Pontifical University of the Angelicum, where he wrote his thesis on Saint John of the Cross.

Before returning to Poland, he was sent by his archbishop to observe new pastoral methods being put into practice in France and Belgium, notably the worker-priest movement. Since Wojtyla himself had been working in a factory under desperate conditions only three years before, this "new type of apostolate" impressed him deeply. "Catholic intellectual activity alone will not transform society," he wrote in his report. These workers needed "a new type of liturgy, understandable to the modern proletarian. It must convince him."

Several years after returning to Soviet-dominated Poland, Wojtyla wrote a cycle of poems titled "The Quarry," a commemoration of a fellow worker whom he had seen die in an accident with the limestone cart. The poem affirms that "man matures through work / which inspires him to difficult good." Work has continued to be a major preoccupation of John Paul. In his 1981 encyclical, Laborem Exercens, he insisted that the most important factor in the economic equation is neither the product nor the employer, but the worker.

Meanwhile, in 1952, Polish priests were being transported to Soviet concentration camps in Siberia. The archbishop of Krakow was arrested, and then Poland's primate, Cardinal Wyszynski. Once again the Polish clergy were abandoned by a pope whose policy of political neutrality during World War II had contributed to the sufferings of the Polish church.

As he had done under the Nazis, Wojtyla chose cultural means to resist the oppressive Soviet regime, publishing poems under the pen name Andrzej Jawien, first in Tygodnik Powszechny (Catholic Weekly) and later in Znak (Sign). During the next 30 years, he composed primarily cycles, individual poems clustered about a central thematic axis.

Far from being "inspirational" or even devotional, they take seriously the problems of modern consciousness, which seeks clarity despite the fog of despair hanging over the psychic landscape. The cycle "Thought--Strange Space," for example, describes the futility and inadequacy felt by those who "stand facing truth and lack the words." Another cycle, "Profiles of a Cyrenean," employs 14 different voices, mingling biblical characters such as Mary Magdalene with stylized contemporary figures.

Threshold, border, frontier: These terms appear throughout both the poems and plays of Karol Wojtyla, naming that narrow zone where crucial events occur and pivotal decisions are made. "It is very hard, this borderline between selfishness and unselfishness," says Anna, the unhappy wife in Wojtyla's 1960 play, The Jeweler's Shop. Described in its subtitle as "A Meditation on the Sacrament of Matrimony," it deals with "the whole span of love and its precipitous edges." Written in the simplified style of the Rhapsodic Theater, the play treats the denuded, burned-over landscape of modern married love by capturing significant reminiscences and conversations of three couples. Its portrayal of the three women in particular shows surprising insight on the part of the author, often accused of insensitivity to women.

Yet it is hardly a play with a happy ending. The old jeweler, who never appears and serves as the play's figure for God, is disregarded by the younger couple. One of the characters wonders if he "does not act anymore with the force of his eyes and his word?" Like his poems, Wojtyla's plays often end with questions.

Once he became pope, John Paul could no longer publish such open-ended literary works. As spiritual leader of the world's largest Christian flock, he was obliged to supply answers to their hard questions. His recent bestseller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, owes its success in part to its question-and-answer format, designed to attract even nonreaders with its talk-show flavor. Italian journalist Vittorio Messori poses the 20 questions, dealing with issues as diverse as Protestant difficulties with papal authority and the claims of Christianity in the face of other world religions. John Paul shows particular sensitivity in these areas. Unfortunately, the question regarding women receives only a scant page-and-a-half reply.

Messori does a good job of representing the secularized Western sensibility, asking for clarification of terminology as basic as "salvation," for example. Since John Paul has lived most of his life under ideologies that distorted or denied spiritual concepts, he responds seriously to this lacuna in the modern consciousness. He recognizes that elemental knowledge of the holy is in danger of being deleted from the world's collective memory.

The blame lies not simply with totalitarian regimes but with "developed" Western nations, where technological considerations have gradually overshadowed human values. All modern nations depend for their survival on infrastructures demanding efficiency of time and resources, often at the expense of humaneness. Within such value-neutral systems, citizens metastasize into consumers, culture degrades to GNP, values float up and down like adjustable-rate mortgages. In response, John Paul has made "the mystery of the human person" the focus of his papacy. In doing so, he has remained faithful not only to his vocation as a priest but also to the passion for the "living human word" that animated his early love for poetry and drama.


John Paul II, "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" (Alfred A. Knopf, 244 pp.; $20, 1994)

James Oram, "The People's Pope" (Chronicle Books; 1979, o.p.).

Gian Franco Svidercoschi, "Letter to a Jewish Friend: The Simple and Extraordinary Story of John Paul II and His Jewish School Friend" (Crossroad, 96 pp.; $12.95, 1994).

Tad Szulc, "John Paul II: The Biography" (A Lisa Drew Book/Scribner, 542 pp.; $27.50, 1995).

Karol Wojtyla, "The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater" (University of California Press, 450 pp.; $45, 1987).

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS AND CULTURE Review


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