The most fitting words for the centennial of St. John Paul II’s birth are poetry, not prose. And they were written 20 years ago by Poland’s most celebrated poet.

The opening scene of George Weigel’s definitive biography of St. John Paul II, Witness to Hope, takes place in Nazi-occupied Kraków. A 22-year-old Karol Wojtyła is, together with his young friends, engaged in a brave act of resistance under the cover of darkness. A troupe committed to a “theater of the living word” was staging a classic of the Polish tradition of epic poetry, Pan Tadeusz.

Karol Wojtyła, born May 18, 1920, was a man of the word — the spoken word of the theater, the poetic word, the scholarly word, the literary word. He studied philology at university. Before he was a priest — a man of the Word made flesh — he was a playwright and poet.

So it was most fitting that, for his 80th birthday, celebrated as the festive day for priests during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, an ode was composed by Poland’s most renowned poet of the 20th century. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, Czesław Miłosz was nearly a decade older than John Paul and shared many of the same experiences. He survived the Nazi occupation and then was exiled from communist Poland to the United States.

He died less than a year before John Paul and was buried at Skałka, the Cracovian shrine at the martyrdom site of St. Stanisłaus, murdered by the king in 1079. In the crypt of the church are buried the giants of Polish culture and literature. There was controversy over whether Miłosz deserved to be buried in that hallowed spot; John Paul resolved it in his favor.

An Ode for the Eightieth Birthday of Pope John Paul II is addressed by the poet to John Paul himself and marvelously summarizes his life.

It begins with the great continuity of Wojtyła’s life — fearlessness in the face of tyranny, animated by faith in Jesus who “has overcome the world” (John 16:33). John Paul’s great “Be not afraid!” exhortation challenged those who thought communist tyranny was a permanent fact of European life. He knew that it would be utterly vanquished. Hence, he is the pope of liberation — from tyranny, from anxiety, from fear:

We come to you, men of weak faith,

So that you might fortify us with the example of your life

And liberate us from anxiety

About tomorrow and the next year. Your twentieth century 

Was made famous by the names of the powerful tyrants

And by the annihilation of their rapacious states.

You knew it must happen. You taught hope:

For only Christ is the lord and master of history. 

The second stanza confirms that poetry is the language of prayer and prophecy and that the poet sees reality beyond the worldly categories of power and prosperity. History instead unfolds under Providence, which gives order to the ages:

Foreigners could not guess from whence came the hidden strength

Of a novice from Wadowice. The prayers and prophecies 

Of poets, whom money and progress scorned,

Even though they were the equals of kings, waited for you

So that you, not they, could announce urbi et orbi,

That the centuries are not absurd but a vast order.

The third stanza addresses John Paul’s courageous defense of the sanctity of life. The Holy Father did not blanch at speaking about a “culture of death.” Miłosz likens the slaughter of the unborn to biblical child sacrifice offered to the false god Moloch:

Shepherd given us when the gods depart! 

In the fog above the cities the Golden Calf shines,

The defenseless crowds race to offer sacrifice

Of their children to the bloody screams of Moloch.

In the air, fear, a lament without words:

Since a desire for faith is not the same as faith. 

The fourth stanza evokes the surprise of World Youth Days — a gathering of true “revolutionaries,” in Pope Benedict XVI’s words, who dissent from the stifling secularism proposed to them as supposed progress:

Then, suddenly, like the clear sound of the bell for matins,

Your sign of dissent, which is like a miracle.

People ask, not comprehending, how it’s possible

That the young of the unbelieving countries 

Gather in the public square, shoulder to shoulder, 

Waiting for the news from two thousand years ago

And throw themselves at the feet of the Vicar

Who embraced with his love the whole human tribe. 

Miłosz concludes with an affectionate nod to the ubiquity of John Paul’s image in Poland and throughout the Catholic world, a reminder that God works not through massed forces, but in the witness of his chosen few, the way of the saints:

You are with us and will be with us henceforth. 

When the forces of chaos raise their voice

And the owners of truth lock themselves in churches 

And only the doubters remain faithful,

Your portrait in our homes every day reminds us

How much one man can accomplish and how sainthood works. 

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

 

   An Ode for the Eightieth Birthday of Pope John Paul II

We come to you, men of weak faith,

So that you might fortify us with the example of your life

And liberate us from anxiety

About tomorrow and the next year. Your twentieth century 

Was made famous by the names of the powerful tyrants

And by the annihilation of their rapacious states.

You knew it must happen. You taught hope:

For only Christ is the lord and master of history. 

 

Foreigners could not guess from whence came the hidden strength

Of a novice from Wadowice. The prayers and prophecies 

Of poets, whom money and progress scorned,

Even though they were the equals of kings, waited for you

So that you, not they, could announce urbi et orbi,

That the centuries are not absurd but a vast order.

 

Shepherd given us when the gods depart! 

In the fog above the cities the Golden Calf shines,

The defenseless crowds race to offer sacrifice

Of their children to the bloody screams of Moloch.

In the air, fear, a lament without words:

Since a desire for faith is not the same as faith. 

 

Then, suddenly, like the clear sound of the bell for matins,

Your sign of dissent, which is like a miracle.

People ask, not comprehending, how it's possible

That the young of the unbelieving countries 

Gather in the public square, shoulder to shoulder, 

Waiting for the news from two thousand years ago

And throw themselves at the feet of the Vicar

Who embraced with his love the whole human tribe. 

 

You are with us and will be with us henceforth. 

When the forces of chaos raise their voice

And the owners of truth lock themselves in churches 

And only the doubters remain faithful,

Your portrait in our homes every day reminds us

How much one man can accomplish and how sainthood works. 

— Czesław Miłosz