As he is being laid to rest, John Paul is justly being feted for his contributions to human rights, religious freedom, and Catholic spiritual renewal.

But it should not be forgotten that he was a priest with a poet's soul--a significant religious poet, and a lifelong man of the theater. And in many ways, his artistic background and temperament lent to his papacy its distinctive character.

The former Karol Wojtyla's poetic sensibilities were forged in the 1930s under the specter of invasion and war.

He had started acting at age 8. By high school he was winning a variety of male leads and was immersed in a serious repertoire that ranged from Greek tragedies and Shakespeare to Polish literary classics. During this period he even made a new translation from the Greek of Sophocles' Oedipus.

The future pope came under the tutelage of important figures in the pre-war Polish theater, and came of age during a revival of 19th-century Polish romanticism-a literary and cultural movement that mingled Catholic mysticism with a messianic nationalism.

The great Polish romantics-such as Mickiewicz, Slowacki, and Norwid-believed that Poland had a God-given role to play in the world, that its political misfortunes represented a mysterious Christ-like suffering for Europe's sins, and that the nation would one day rise to lead the spiritual renewal of the West.

Wojtyla left the theater in 1944 to study secretly for the priesthood. However, throughout his career in Poland he remained intensely interested in the theater.As a bishop during the communist era, he wrote essays and reviews under a pseudonym for the nation's leading Catholic newspaper, The Universal Weekly. In these writings he developed a mystical Catholic notion of the power of human words and language.

As he saw it, there was a deep connection between the power of the poetic and theatrical word and the divine Word by which God created the universe and by which bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.

The "idea proclaimed with a living word" on stage, he suggested, also had the power to transform reality-by creating new thought-worlds and by summoning listeners to moral action.

His own plays and poems from this period-all written under various pen names-bear the stamp of his ambitious belief in the power of language.

Wojtyla had a unique voice and style, deeply religious and highly personal, limning the margins between thought and prayer. As a poet, his themes were philosophical and existential: the human thirst for dignity; the meaning of work; the presence of God found in the beauty of nature; the wonders of human love as the gateway to divine love.

In a country suffering brutal occupation, Wojtyla was, in the words of one of his poems, a singer of the hidden God. His poetry drew its vocabulary and imagery from Scripture. After the fashion of St. Ignatius of Loyola's spiritual exercises, Wojtyla often began with a dramatic imagining of a biblical scene that quickly became a spiritual lens through which he observed everyday human struggles and joys.

In a poem-cycle inspired by the story of the Cyrenean forced to help Christ on his way to Golgotha, Wojtyla includes a moving meditation written in the voice of an assembly line worker in an auto plant:

They stole my voice; it's the cars that speak.
My soul is open: I want to know
with whom I am fighting, for whom I live...
No answers...
Just be back every day at six in the morning...

It is heady and difficult poetry. But Wojtyla is always trying to remove the manacles of his intellect-"to know even less, to believe even more."

Always in his work, Wojtyla returned to Catholic belief in the Eucharist. In the transformation of bread and wine he found the ultimate sign of the God who ever hides-and at the same time continually reveals himself.

In lines worthy of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Church's great bard of the Eucharist, Wojtyla sings in the voice of Christ:

Learn from me, my dear ones, how to hide,
for where I am hidden I abide....
[T]here is a Beauty more real
concealed in the living blood.

A morsel of bread is more real
than the universe,
more full of existence, more full of the Word-
a song overflowing, the sea,
a mist confusing the sundial-
God in exile.

Direct lines can be traced between Karol Wojtyla's poetic and dramatic themes and his concerns as Pope John Paul II, especially in the formative years of his pontificate.

In his first homily as pope, delivered to the world on October 22, 1978, he quoted his hero, the romantic poet, Mickiewicz. And in his first encyclical, Redemptoris Hominis ("The Redeemer of Humanity"), he offered a long meditation on "the drama of present-day human existence" and the "mystery" of God's plan for history-themes especially found in his later plays.