They have called [me] from a far country — far, but always so close through the communion in the Christian faith and tradition…
October 16, 2008 marked the 30th anniversary of Karol Wojtyła becoming Pope John Paul II – the first Slavic Pope ever and the first non-Italian Pope since the 16th Century. In 1978, this was a remarkable event. It was the beginning of a papacy that would not only leave a lasting imprint on the Catholic Church, but on the entire world. When John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, 27 years after the conclave that elected him, billions of people around the world would mourn the loss, regardless of their own faith or creed. He may have ruled over the Church, but his message and the love he shared was for all people.
For Polish-American Heritage Month, I wanted to write about a Pole that I admire, and John Paul II is definitely my favorite Pole. But much has been written about the Pope; instead I wish to focus on the Man Who Would Be Pope, Karol Wojtyła. To understand Karol, one must discover Polish culture and history. For the cardinals may have taken Karol out of Poland, but no one could ever take Poland from his heart and soul.
Karol was born in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920. The town today appears to be relatively quiet, small by American standards – one might even use the adjective “quaint” because of its Old World European charm and its bucolic setting among the rolling hills of Ślaskie province. But Wadowice was far from a “backwater” town even back in the 1920s – it was actually a “hot spot” for Polish culture, literature, and theater. Polish culture so permeated young Karol’s life that its ideals and philosophy influenced him for the rest of his life.
Yesterday I wrote about some of the authors of the Polish Romantic movement. As a youth in Wadowice, Karol first learned and loved Sienkiewicz, Mickiewicz, and Słowacki. Their view of history and its spiritual dimension greatly affected the future Pope. From them, he learned about the ideals of freedom and truth. In addition to developing a love for Polish literature, young Karol was exposed to the theater. Wadowice had a very active amateur theater which performed everything from Polish classics to Greek tragedies and Shakespeare. Karol decided on his vocation in life…to become an actor. He was very well regarded as a performer, and he began to write plays himself in addition to poetry. It was the second love of his life behind the love he had for God.
At college, Karol continued his studies of language and literature, still intending to become an actor. Hitler interrupted his plans. As the Germans advanced into Poland, Polish life changed. University professors were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, but the intelligentsia that remained decided to operate the college covertly, which allowed Karol to continue his studies. During that time, he and his friends founded the Rhapsodic Theater. The theater group was essentially a resistance movement, albeit one that resisted the Nazis with culture instead of weapons. For Polish cultural expression was forbidden in Nazi-occupied Poland; participating in cultural or religious activities was a capital offense. Chopin’s music could not be performed, and libraries were destroyed. The goal of the Rhapsodic Theater was resistance through culture – they sought to save Polish culture from extinction, and by keeping that flame burning they believed that Poland as a nation would survive.
Such a non-violent form of resistance may strike some as odd, but it was as daring as a more overt or violent expression of resistance. Under the Nazis, it did not matter whether a gathering of people in someone’s home were occupied with reciting Polish poetry or assembling incendiary devices, for the result was the same: all would be arrested. The group of young actors and playwrights prepared productions and practiced in hiding, avoiding military patrols, after they had worked all day at various “hard labor” jobs such as Karol’s job at a stone quarry. Their clandestine rehearsals and performances were all with a purpose: to save Polish culture from extinction, and to restore the very soul of Poland so that it could one day recover.
It was also during this time of war that Karol realized a calling to the priesthood – since the Church’s activities were curtailed with over 3,500 priests imprisoned in concentration camps, his religious training was in an “underground” seminary. It is a fascinating period of Karol’s life, and if all you know is “the rest of the story” and where his priesthood eventually leads, I encourage you to read more about his life.
Of course, Karol didn’t just read and recite poetry; he wrote his own. His poetry is deep, moving, emotional. One of my favorites is one that he wrote in 1939 at the age of nineteen in which he reflects on the death of his mother who died just before his ninth birthday:
Over this, your white grave
the flowers of life in white–
so many years without you–
how many have passed out of sight?
Over this your white grave
covered for years, there is a stir
in the air, something uplifting
and, like death, beyond comprehension.
Over this your white grave
oh, mother, can such loving cease?
for all his filial adoration
Give her eternal peace–
–“Over This, Your White Grave”
To know Pope John Paul II is to know Poland, but do not think that he was exclusive or closed to others. The opposite was true. Polish culture defined who he was, but also imbued him with an openness and a love for other cultures that made him loved and be loved the world over.
The author meeting Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, March 6, 2000
I met him face to face in 2000. In an all-too-brief moment – one that I purposely rushed in an attempt to give my traveling companions a brief chance to touch him as well – I held his hand in mine. In the years since I have tried many times to write about it, but I can not find the words to adequately describe this meeting. To use the adjective “surreal” seems like a stereotype, but that is the word in my mind as it happened. To sum up the feeling: I have never been in the presence of someone that radiated love like he did. I can’t explain it. You “felt” it. A scripture quote that I often think of in connection with this memory is “Were not our hearts burning within us?” [Luke 24:32] when the disciples met Jesus on the road to Emmaus. I do not mean to imply that meeting JP2 was like meeting Christ, for the Holy Father himself would be the first to agree that he was merely His servant. But, I felt my soul on fire as I stood near him that day, the fire of Love. There is simply no other way to describe it. Over eight years later, I still feel the burn, and the love he had for all.
Read an interview with Tennessee poet Lynn Powell about John Paul II’s poetry.
[Written for the Polish History & Culture Challenge.]