Pope John Paul II, of the Holy Catholic Church. Theologian, philosopher, preacher, poet, playwright (pen names: Andrzej Jawień, A.J., Stanisław Andrzej Gruda, Piotr Jasień). Born May 18th, 1920 in Wadowice, died April 2, 2005 at the Vatican.
I passed him the request of the Writers’ Union to accept honorary membership. The Pope responded with an amused expression: “What of me is a writer!…” The conversation amused him.
[Fr. Adam Boniecki, in Flowers of John Paul II, edited by Janusz Poniewierski. Wydawnictwo Znak, Kraków 2005]
Karol Wojtyła’s interest in literature and theatre dates back to his days as a student at the Marcin Wadowita Wadowice Gymnasium (1932-1938). There, beginning in 1934, he was a member of the school’s Theatre Society, in which he often played leading roles, including those in Antigone (Haemon), Balladyna (Kirkor, Fon Kostryn), Kordian (Kordian), Non-Divine Comedy (Earl Henry), Maidens’ Vows (Gucio), Zygmunt Augustus (Zygmunt Augustus), and Judas of Kerioth. Young Wojtyła also co-directed many of the productions.
At the time, it seemed to me decisive, above all, a passion for literature, and in particular, a fondness for dramatic literature and theater. My passion for theatre was inspired by my instructor Mieczysław Kotlarczyk. He was a true pioneer of amateur theater repertoire, with great ambitions.
[John Paul II, Gift and Mystery, Wydawnictwo Św. Stanisława, WAM, Kraków 1996]
In 1938, Wojtyła began a course in Polish studies at Jagiellonian University. In the spring of 1939, he released his first book of poetry entitled, The Psalter of David/Slavic Book, also known as The Renaissance Psalter.
On June 7, 1939, he performed in a production led by Tadeusz Kudliński with Confraternity Drama, later known as Studio 39. Of the experience, he recalls,
It was a lovely evening; the city was full of music and dance. We came home through the calm, well-lit Planty – singing, rejoicing. We were actors – we had performed in front of a real audience, who received us with enthusiasm. We were poets…and we loved the world and life.
[Juliusz Kydryński, in Youthful years of Karol Wojtyła. Memoirs., ed. Juliusz Kydryński, Kraków, 1990]
With Mieczysław Kotlarczyk, who he persuaded to move from Wadowice, Karol Wojtyła played on the stages of underground theatres in occupied Kraków, developing a stage presence based on strength of words and economical gestures.
In December 1939, Karol Wojtyła finished the dramatic poem, David (lost). In 1940, he discovered the works of Spanish mystics. Influenced by the writings of St. John of the Cross, in the spring and summer of that year he composed the dramas Job and Jeremiah. They explored stories of the Old Testament inscribed into Polish considerations of the past. Both Job and Jeremiah were literary reflections of historical catastrophe and the search for meaning in the tragic events of history. The dramas are highly stylized – characterized by relatively little action, multidimensional time structures, and extensive use of discursive language.
In September 1940, Wojtyła began working as a laborer in a quarry in Zakrzówek and in a lye factory in Borek Fałęcki near Kraków. To sustain him in this work, he wrote one of his first works of fiction, Stone and Vastness.
In 1942, he joined the underground Archbishop’s Seminary in Kraków and studied philosophy in secret at Jagiellonian University – all the while continuing his work as a laborer. On November 1, 1946 he was ordained by Archbishop Adam Sapieha. A day later, he celebrated his first Mass in the crypt of St. Leonard on Wawel Hill.
On November 15, 1946, Father Wojtyła began his studies at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome. The following summer, he travelled to France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. In December 1948, he defended his doctoral dissertation at the Jagiellonian University Department of Theology, entitled “The Doctrine of the Faith in St. John of the Cross.”
In the winter of 1949/1950, he completed the drama Brother of Our God. It explored the fate of Adam Chmielowski – later Brother Albert, founder of the Albtertine order – as he cared for the homeless. Wojtyła used the drama to consider – socially, morally, philosophically, and theologically – the place of the individual in the process of history.
After 1950, Wojtyła’s literary expression took the form of deeply reflective poems, in the tradition of meditations or treatises. In May 1950, Tygodnik Powszechy published his series of poems, Song on the Splendor of Water.
In November 1957, Wojtyła’s poetic cycle entitled The Quarry was published in Znak.
Listen, the clatter of hammers, measuring and so it is
I move inside humans to examine the strength of hits –
listen, electric current cuts a river –
and thought grows in me day after day,
the greatness of work is inside man.
[The Quarry. And Material., a fragment, 1956]
In July 1958, Father Wojtyła received a papal appointment as auxiliary bishop of Kraków. When he was consecrated bishop on September 28, 1958, he became the youngest member of the Polish Episcopate.
As bishop, Wotyła continued to write. In 1960, his Love and Responsibility was published. In the text, a complex drama about the fate of three couples connects scenes of the characters’ monologues. It was a novel form, though eclipsed by the more extreme experimentation of authors like Becket and Pinter.
Between 1962 and 1965, Wojtyła participated in the Second Vatican Council. In their discussion of reforms, he spoke about religious freedom, secular callings, and the necessity of dialogue between the Church and the faithful in other countries. His poetic record of the first session of the Council was published in Znak under the title The Church: Pastors and Sources. He continued to document his sacred work in verse, and in 1965, his series Journey to the Holy Places – a reflection on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land – was published, again in Znak.
In 1967, Pope Paul VI appointed Wojtyła Cardinal. That fall, the newly named Cardinal Wojtyła inaugurated the construction for the Ark of the Lord church in Nowa Huta, outside Kraków. In 1967, he represented the Polish Catholic Church at the International Eucharistic Congress in Melbourne, Australia.
In August 1978 – after years of serving the Catholic Church and travelling around the world – Wojtyła participated in the conclave that elected Cardinal Albino Luciani pope. Luciani took the name John Paul I. When, at the end of the following month John Paul I died, Wojtyła composed what would be his final poem under the name Karol Wojtyła, Stanisław/Stanislaus. In early October he delivered a sermon during the Mass for John Paul I in the Church of St. Stanislaus in Rome. A week later, another conclave commenced to select the next pope.
On October 16, 1978 , the conclave announced Cardinal Karol Wojtyła as the new pope. Wojtyła took the name John Paul II and six days later celebrated Mass, thus inaugurating his pontificate. In attendance was not only the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, but also representatives of twenty other Christian churches.
In June of 1979, he made his first trip to Poland as pope. In his pastoral ministry, matters of faith were not separate from the other spiritual duties of man. Among those duties was that of culture.
What is culture? Culture is the expression of man. It is an acknowledgment of humanity. It is created by an internal effort of spirit, mind, will, and heart. Yet, at the same time, culture is created in community with others. Culture is an expression of interpersonal communication and intersections between people. It arises in service of the common good – and it becomes a fundamental good of human communities.
[John Paul II, To the Youth at Lech Hill (Gniezno), June 3, 1979]
At the headquarters of UNESCO in Paris in June 1980, the Pope again spoke of culture and historical identity in the life of every nation.
A man lives a truly human life though culture. […] Culture is that by which man, as man, becomes more human…. Nations are, in fact, great communities of people united by various ties, but above all, by culture. […] I am talking about the rights of a nation born of the foundations of culture and aimed to the future…. There is a basic sovereignty of society, which is expressed in the culture of the nation.
[John Paul II, Memory and Identity, Znak, Kraków, 2005]
On May 13, 1981, the Pope narrowly escaped death after being shot by Turkish gunman, Mehmet Ali Agca.
In August 1985, Pope John Paul II spoke to 80,000 young Muslims in Casablanca and in April 1986, he became the first Pope to visit the synagogue in Rome. The Pope additionally tried to bring together Christians of different faiths – publishing a letter on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther (1983), meeting with the Patriarch of Constantinople, and visiting the Canterbury Cathedral.
Making pilgrimages to his native Poland in the difficult 1980s, John Paul II carried the hopes of his countrymen and never forgot his people and his culture. He twice met with Polish artists in this era of creative repression and remained a voice in support of their freedom of expression.
I rejoice that intellectuals, artists, and people of culture find in the Church an area of freedom, which is often lacking elsewhere…. I hope that the Polish church responds fully to the trust of people, sometimes coming from afar, and finds a language that will touch their hearts and minds.
[John Paul II, Address to the Creators of Culture in Warsaw, June 13, 1987]
John Paul II carried this message of culture and humanity with him on his historic pilgrimages to Sarajevo, Cuba, and Romania – where he met with Patriarch Teoctist. On Easter Sunday, April 4, 1999, he shared his Letter to Artists.
By creating his work, the artist expresses… himself, to the extent that his work is a specific reflection of his essence – of who and what he is. […] Through his works the artist speaks and communicates with others. Indeed, the story of art is not only the history of the works, but also of the people. Works of art speak of their authors, they let you experience the interior and reveal individual contributions to history.
In 2003, the poem Roman Triptych appeared in six languages: Polish, German, English, Spanish, French, and Italian. It is the only purely literary piece written by the Pope and singed with his name. It appeals to core values he felt must not be ignored in the 21st century: faith, hope, and love.
If you want to find the source,
you have to go up against the current.
Tear it up, look, do not give in,
You know it must be here somewhere –
Where are you, source?... Where are you, source? […]
(Silence – why are you silent?
How carefully hid
The secret of your first).
[John Paul II, Roman Triptych]
Though his verse is deeply embedded in the texts of antiquity – those of the Greco-Roman tradition and the Bible – they also reveal John Paul II’s Polish roots in their echoes of Romanticism. He shows the influence of his favorite authors: Julian Słowacki, Cyrpian Kamil Norwid, and Stainsław Wyspiański.
On February 1, 2005, Pope John Paul II was admitted to Gemelli Hospital with complications from influenza, where he underwent a tracheotomy. During Easter, the Pope silently led the liturgy of Holy Week for the last time. He died on April 2, 2005, at the age of 84.
Beginning in 1950, there appeared in the Catholic press reflective poems by Wojtyła, signed with pseudonyms. These works are often discursive monologues, characterized by the intellectual statements and repressed expression. They reflect a sort of “active personalism,” particularly those found in the book The Acting Person (1969).
Wojtyła’s poems investigate various themes: existential (Reflection on Death, 1975); socio-moral (Quarry, 1956); religious (The Church, 1962); national (Easter Eve, 1966, Thinking Homeland, 1974). Myśl jest przestrzenią dziwną/Thought is a Strange Space (1952) is a poetic testimony of mystical knowledge of God.
Homeland – when I think – I still hear the sound of scythes, hitting the wall of wheat, combining in one profile to the brightness of the sky.
The poetry of Karol Wojtyła/John Paul II has received less interest than his dramaturgy. In the priestly ministry he was regarded as an outstanding preacher, wielding language to reach all of the faithful, but the most important messages are best mined by a careful and educated reader. His is a poetry that requires focused thought and a familiarity with the cultural context.
The poetic works of John Paul II, both those of his youth and later, cannot be properly analyzed in terms of aesthetic literary criticism. The essence of its beauty is a mystical, endless depth. […] The works of John Paul II are dominated by philosophical discourse, of a meditative man discovering new and different sources of holiness in the world and nature and the mysteries of humanity…
[Marek Skwarnicki, in Karol Wojtyła/John Paul II, Collected Poems/Roman Triptych, Wydawnictwo Biały Kruk, Kraków 2003]
A literary sensibility characterized all aspect of Wojtyła’s work, especially his preaching. The literary pope sparked great interest around the world and has been translated into many languages. Among the esteemed translators of his works are Karl Dedecius (German), Pierre Emmanuel, Konstanty Aleksander Jeleński (French), Margherita Guidacci (Italian), Jerzy Pietrkiewicz, Bolesław Taborski (English).
Author: Janusz R. Kowalczyk, June 2014
translation and edits: Alena Aniskiewicz 26.06.2014
(Texts written and published before October 16, 1978, published under pseudonyms: Andrzej Jawień, Stanisław Andrzej Gruda, or A.J.)
Prior to October 16, 1978, two additional works by Karol Wojtyła:
Karol Wojtyła – John Paul II (a selection)