His ambition, as a young man growing up in Wadowice, Poland, was to be an actor.
In these years, as he later described himself, he was “completely absorbed by a passion for literature, especially dramatic literature, and for the theater” (Pope John Paul II, Gift and Mystery, p. 6).
In his last year in high school he was asked to give an address in honor of a visit to the school by the archbishop of Kraków. Impressed by the speech, the archbishop inquired of one of the young man’s teachers if he might make a priest one day. The teacher replied that the young man was intent on his literary and theatrical ambitions. “A pity,” the archbishop replied.
When the young man entered Kraków’s Jagiellonian University in the Fall of 1939, he immediately became involved with an avant-garde student theater troupe called Studio 39.
But then, in that same Fall of 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland, and the young man’s life—along with the fate of the entire world—changed forever.
Not that the young man gave up his artistic ambitions. He took them underground, where they flourished in an even more intense—and unexpected—way.
With a group of like-minded friends he helped form a theater troupe, the Rhapsodic Theater, inspired by the ideas of an older friend from Wadowice, Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk.
As George Wiegel writes, for Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk “the actor had a function not unlike a priest: to open up, through the materials of this world, the realm of transcendent truth. His “theater of the inner word” would make present universal truths and universal moral values, which stood in judgment on the here-and-now and offered the world the possibility of authentic transformation” (Witness to Hope, p. 37).
The Rhapsodic Theater was a resistance movement. It devoted itself to Kotlarczyk’s vision and to keeping alive the tradition of Polish Romantic literature, determined to keep this flame of Polish culture burning in the midst of Occupation. The troupe promoted its performances in secret, and played in living rooms behind closed curtains. If caught, the members of the troupe would certainly have been arrested and no doubt killed.
The young man from Wadowice came under the spell of Kotlarczyk’s dramatic ideas. But even as his commitment to the underground theater intensified, the theater’s concentration on the “word” led him ever deeper into the mystery of the “Word.” The “universal truths” that Kotlarczyk saw as the aim of all theater led the young man to the “Universal Truth” Himself. The young man, Karol Wojtyla, began to feel the stirrings of a very different calling: to the priesthood.
But in a deeper sense, Father Wojtyla—later Pope John Paul II—did not cease to be an actor. Weigel writes: “Theater, for Wojtyla, was also an experience of community, the self-disciplined action of a group of individuals who, by blending their individual talents with the talents of others, become something more than the sum of their parts. And the intensity of the theatrical vocation, particularly according to Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk, was, perhaps, the beginning of other intuitions to be pursued later. If drama could unveil the deeper dimensions of the truth of things, might there be a dramatic structure to every human life? To the whole of reality?” (Witness to Hope, p. 38).
For Pope John Paul II, the pope the Church will beatify on May 1, the answer to both of these questions is a resounding “yes.” God is the protagonist of a great drama, a romantic comedy, in which all human beings have a part to play in finding True Love in God. The glory of the arts is that they can serve as a way for human beings to enter into this drama, to become actors in the greatest story of them all. Writing of the relationship between art and faith in his 1999 Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II observed:
“With this Letter, I turn to you, the artists of the world, to assure you of my esteem and to help consolidate a more constructive partnership between art and the Church. Mine is an invitation to rediscover the depth of the spiritual and religious dimension which has been typical of art in its noblest forms in every age. It is with this in mind that I appeal to you, artists of the written and spoken word, of the theatre and music, of the plastic arts and the most recent technologies in the field of communication. I appeal especially to you, Christian artists: I wish to remind each of you that, beyond functional considerations, the close alliance that has always existed between the Gospel and art means that you are invited to 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.”
“Human beings, in a certain sense, are unknown to themselves. Jesus Christ not only reveals God, but “fully reveals man to man.” In Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself. All believers are called to bear witness to this; but it is up to you, men and women who have given your lives to art, to declare with all the wealth of your ingenuity that in Christ the world is redeemed: the human person is redeemed, the human body is redeemed, and the whole creation which, according to Saint Paul, “awaits impatiently the revelation of the children of God” (Rom 8:19), is redeemed. The creation awaits the revelation of the children of God also through art and in art. This is your task. Humanity in every age, and even today, looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny” (no. 14).
So in the end, paradoxically, it was in abandoning his original desire to be an actor that Pope John Paul II enacted the true meaning not only of drama, but also of all the arts.
Pope Blessed John Paul II, pray for us.
Pope Blessed John Paul II, pray for us.
* For those interested in learning more about Pope John Paul II and his youthful ambition to be an actor, see George Weigel’s magnificent biography, Witness to Hope, especially chapters 1 and 2.