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.
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...
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.
His first cycle of weekly teachings, which came to be known as the "theology of the body," developed concepts worked out more than two decades earlier in his play, The Jeweler's Shop. Salvifici Doloris ("Salvific Suffering"), and important early letter on the Christian meaning of suffering, in parts reads like a commentary on his play, Job.
The power of human love to reveal divine love-the underlying theme in his later plays and in much of his poetry-became a keynote of his papal teaching.
As a poet and playwright, he was preoccupied "to prove...that on the other side of all those loves that fill our lives there is Love!" as the lead character exclaims in The Jeweler's Shop. As pope, he made it his mission to open the eyes of the world to this Love of God, which, as he said in Redemptoris Hominis, "has taken a form and a name-that of Jesus Christ."
His belief in the power of the living word to transform lives animated his struggle against both Soviet totalitarianism and the soulless materialism of the West.
Only a man of the theater could have staged the dramatic events of this papacy-his historic visit to the Rome synagogue; his carrying of the cross on Good Friday 2000 in the Colosseum where many of the first Christian martyrs died; the spectacular World Youth Days.
As pope, he was also a lively and engaged patron of the arts. At the Vatican, he regularly screened films, hosted live performances, and welcomed artists and entertainers. His letters and addresses on the arts and the media fill a slender volume.
John Paul was passionately convinced that poets, writers, sculptors, painters, architects, musicians and actors had a crucial role to play in "the new evangelization" of the world. "Humanity in every age-and even today-looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny," he wrote in a very personal letter to the world's artists penned on the final Easter of the 20th century.
He urged artists to see their talent and inspiration as gifts from God and to use these gifts for the spiritual renewal of civilization. Through their artistic search for beauty, goodness and truth, they would issue "a call to transcendence" to the men and women of their day-stirring them to wonder and awe, compelling them to follow the footprints of the divine found in the world back to their source in God.
This is the path that John Paul is found taking in his final and perhaps finest cycle of poems, the elegiac Roman Triptych (2003) In a kind of rhapsodic verse-pilgrimage, the poet is led from a dazzling sunlit stream to the Sistine Chapel, and finally, as if transported in a vision, to the hill outside Jerusalem where long ago Abraham was asked to sacrifice his only son, Isaac.
These are the songs of an aged poet at the end of his days, preparing for the not-too-distant time when all will be laid bare before the eyes of God-when "what is imperishable in me...stands face to face with Him Who Is!"
John Paul's final poems give us the portrait of an artist who has discovered the Eternal Word speaking in the rhythms of a mountain stream; who has found his story and ours written in the pages of sacred Scripture, spoken in a "riot of colors" on Michelangelo's walls.
One last time in these poems, the poet-pope comes to proclaim his living word-that everything around us should speak of God's love for us, a love that comes as a promise made before time began:
existence itself as the outward sign of eternal Love....
the sign of the Covenant
which the Eternal Word made with you
even before the world was created.
In the end, the poet enraptured by the Word, the pope who wrote more words than any before him, left without a word.
At the window of his Vatican apartment, head bent to one side, no longer able to speak, he gave his most inspired performance-by his very presence conveying all the drama of human suffering and the mysterious passion of love.
He had passed over. From words to the Word.