Pope John Paul II, Playwright Saint
Special Section: John Paul II John XXIII: Papal Saints for the New Evangelization
Why do people write plays? T.S. Eliot said that "playwriting gets into your blood, and you can’t stop it."
But for Karol Wojtyla, it was rather that blood got into his playwriting — the Blood of Christ.
The 19-year-old Karol Wojtyla wrote a letter to his mentor in the theater, Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk, on Nov. 2, 1939: "I have lately given much thought to the liberating force of suffering. It is on suffering that Christ’s system rests, beginning with the cross and ending with the smallest human torment."
This conviction about the redemptive meaning of human suffering would permeate the plays as well as distinguish the heroic personal witness of Pope John Paul II’s saintly life.
In that same letter he bids, "Let theater be a church."
A year later, the 20-year-old playwright completed his second drama, Job (his first play, David, sadly, is lost) — a retelling of the Old Testament story from the lived experience of the agony of Nazi-occupied Poland. Job observes: "In what I say I see one thing/ … how souls are struggling with grief/whether they are righteous or sinful. … /I look and see: He is Harmony. I look and see: He balances all."
Why did John Paul turn to art to propagate Christ’s passion? Because, as he would explain years later in his sublime "Letter to Artists," it is the nature of "every genuine artistic intuition" to strive to "interpret [reality’s] hidden mystery," for "art by its nature [is] a kind of appeal to the mystery." He noted that "every genuine art form … is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world. It is therefore a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith. … Art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience."
The Holy Father would go so far as to declare, "The Church needs art." He encouraged his fellow artists: "Use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man."
The unfolding of this certainty appears in the saint’s plays themselves. In his 1960 play The Jeweler’s Shop, a drama about marriage, the character Andrew makes an admission that could be Wojtyla’s own: "Gradually, I learned to value beauty/accessible to the mind, that is to say, truth."
Pope John Paul II confirms this in his "Letter to Artists": "The ‘beautiful’ was … wedded to the ‘true,’ so that through art … souls might be lifted up from the world of the senses to the eternal."
The play Our God’s Brother tells the true story of Brother Albert (Adam) Chmielowski, who died in 1916. He was the Polish freedom fighter, artist and protector of the poor whom Pope John Paul II canonized in 1989. Our God’s Brother enjoys the unique distinction of being a play about a saint who was made a saint by a saint who wrote the play. Here again, we feel John Paul II’s heart in the character of Stanislaw, when he says: "As artists, we merely try to understand, or rather heed … and reflect in our work an unexpected insight into our self, which, slowly transformed, has suddenly realized its own transformation."
If John Paul harbored any doubts about the efficacy of art to convey God’s mystery, he answers it in a piece of his own dialogue from the same play:
Adam: "I know they don’t need me, and at the same time, God does not need my art."
Priest: "You are wrong, my brother. They do need you, and God regards your art with a father’s eye. After all, it brings people nearer to Him. You attempt to search for his glory through it."
The matrix for John Paul’s plays was an innovative form of theater that the young dramatist helped found — the "Rhapsodic Theatre" or the "Theatre of the Word." "The word, before it is ever spoken on the stage," wrote Pope John Paul II in his reflection on the priesthood, Gift and Mystery, "is already present in human history as a fundamental dimension of man’s spiritual experience. Ultimately, the mystery of language brings us back to the inscrutable mystery of God himself." In a 1957 article, he wrote that "the fundamental element of dramatic art is the living word. ... It is … the nucleus of drama, a leaven through which human deeds pass, and from which they derive their proper dynamics."
In one of his numerous essays on theater, Karol Wojtyla laid out the mission of the Theatre of the Word: "Drama fulfills its social function … by demonstrating the paths on which [action] matures in human thought. … [Rhapsodic Theatre] … enables us to understand the inner base of human action, the very fulcrum of human movement."
Another of his theater writings clarified how the Theatre of the Word works: "In rhapsodic performances … we always find a problem. … The impact of the performance is caused … by the problem itself. … The problem itself acts, rouses interest, disturbs, evokes the audience’s participation, demands understanding and a solution." For this reason, the rhapsodist actor "carries the problem."
This insight sheds light not only on Pope John Paul II’s art, but also on what sets him apart as a saint.
Professor Wojtyla had stated in his philosophical opus, entitled The Acting Person, that "outside of the drama [of values and obligations], man cannot fulfill himself as a person."
And in a speech as the Holy Father, he said that "the basic human drama is the failure to perceive the meaning of life, to live without a meaning."
Pope John Paul II made use of the theater and its "great ethical power" to generate the truth of the Gospel simply because human life itself is a drama. The character Adam in The Jeweler’s Shop (written under the pseudonym Andrzej Jawien) says: "This is just what compels me to think about human love. There is no other matter embedded more strongly in the surface of human life, and there is no matter more unknown and more mysterious. The divergence between what lies on the surface and the mystery of love constitutes precisely the source of the drama."
Pope John Paul II lived by the certainty that "beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence." As he continued in his "Letter to Artists," "Beauty stirs that hidden nostalgia for God. … True beauty … will transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal."
The life, work and example of St. John Paul II stand as living proof of this.
The speaker in Wojtyla’s dramatic monologue/prayer Reflections on Fatherhood makes this moving confession: "The Son … is the living denial of all loneliness. If I knew how to immerse myself in Him, if I knew how to implant myself in Him, I would find in myself the Love that fills Him."
Through his playwriting, John Paul II did implant himself in Jesus and found the Love that fills Him. And thanks to St. John Paul II, so can we.
Dominican Father Peter John Cameron holds a master of fine arts degree in playwriting. He is the artistic director of Blackfriars Repertory Theatre in New York City, and the editor in chief of Magnificat.
- April 20-May 3, 2014