The Poetic Pope

As we celebrate All Saints day, we also look ahead to the canonization of two new saints on April 27, 2014:  John Paul II and John XXIII.  Concerning the former, John Paul II’s vast legacy of writings continues to be mined for the profundity of his wisdom and holiness.  What is lesser known of his work, though, is the collection of poetic compositions he published, often under a pseudonym.

There, in his lyrical words, we see the true artist at work.  As he wrote in Gift and Mystery (1996), “The word, before being pronounced on stage, lives in the story of man as a fundamental dimension of his spiritual experience.  In the ultimate analysis, it leads back to the inscrutable mystery of God.  Rediscovering the word by way of literary and linguistic studies cannot help but draw me near to the mystery of the Word, of that Word to which we refer every day in the prayer of the Angelus: ‘And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’.”

But in that poetry we also see the saint (to-be) at work.  As Antonio Spadaro points out in his guide to the pope’s poetry, Nella Melodia della Terra (In the Melody of the Earth):  “It has a ‘mystagogical’ value, that is, it guides the reader to have a real experience.”

Wojtyla’s poetry concerns a variety of real human experiences:  creation, work, anguish, prayer, motherhood, and especially his Polish homeland.  And he contemplates real religious experiences, too, from that of Mary’s Magnificat, to Simeon of Cyrene and Veronica along the way of the cross, to what it’s like to sit before Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistene Chapel during the election of a pope.   Common to all these reference points is their power to disclose fundamental truths about the aspirations of human life.  As the poet-pope proclaims, “man bears in himself the secret structure of the world.”

For example, John Paul II sees in “the crowd that navigates behind the neon shadow” modern-day examples of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4).  So, too, in commenting on Jacob’s wrestling with the angel at the river Jabok (Genesis 32), he writes of how “man suffers above all from the lack of a vision” of what really counts in life.

The former poem, says Fr. Spadaro, points to a secret of the heart, the mystery of our lot in life that only contact with the Christ reveals.   The latter, he says, uncovers an anxiety about human existence that only the divine Someone (the title of the poem) can penetrate.  In both we see that “Human restlessness cannot find any other place of repose than in marvels.”

According to Spadaro, the metaphorical architecture of Wojtyla’s poetry shows the interconnection between restlessness and peace that operates in our conscience.  There, says Wojtyla himself, man “continues to search.  But for what?  Perhaps I have searched enough.  I searched among many truths.  However, these things can only mature in this way.  Philosophy, art, etc.  The truth is what finally floats to the top as oil in water.  In this way life reveals itself to us … little by little, in parts, but continually.”

Thankfully, we will soon celebrate again the life of one who revealed so much to the world.  His gifted way of contemplating the key truths of human existence shows us that Karol Wojtyla / John Paul II had a penetratingly poetic frame of mind, one from which we can still learn, if we but enter into the melody of life.

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One Response to “The Poetic Pope”

  1. Last year I was on the committee charged with consolidating three schools. At a meeting to decide the name for our new school the 18 members were free to suggest three names each that we would vote down to four and present them to the parents of the schools. During the first round when I was asked for my suggestion I offered Pope John XXIII. In the first round of voting Pope John XXIII received two votes, mine and some other anonymous person. My turn to the lady next to me, a mother and her mid 30s, I said, “amazed at Pope John XXIII did not get more attention”. She said, “who is he?” Truly!

    This argues for better catechesis and some remedy for America’s penchant to be ahistorical. Lady Gaga (whoever she is) gets more attention than “good Pope John”. I would argue that his papacy will have a more lasting impact on the church then Blessed Pope John Paul II. And it would be a great argument. I mean no slight to the Pope from Poland whose long pontificate has left a large imprint on the 20th century. Nonetheless, the renewal of the church by way of the II Vatican Council (in which Council the auxiliary Bishop of Kraków first drew the attention of Council fathers); her return to her biblical and patristic sources, was, and is and will be for ages to come refreshing. “What is needed at the present time is a new enthusiasm, a new joy.” (Pope John XXIII)

    On second thought, let’s have no argument. I’ll call it a draw. Pope Francis holds all the cards. Whew! In my one trip to Ireland (1977) I remember a pub with a sign behind the bar that read, “no discussions here about religion or politics”. So I withdraw from the field. However, I do suggest that you google over to Wikipedia and Pope John XXIII. It’s a start. That’s what I wish I had said to the thirty-something young lady sitting next to me at that meeting. Sadly, I only think of those kind of responses later. I’ve always been slow on the uptake.

    Blessed Popes John XXIII and John Paul II pray for us who carry on the Tradition.

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