You may know John Paul II as many things…
A prolific writer and theologian, the Pope who ushered us into the new millennium, a vastly loving man who was in turn beloved by so many…
But did you know that he was also an artist and an athlete?
Here are five fun facts about the creative life of John Paul II (baptized Karol Wojtyła), whose feast day is celebrated October 22nd.
1. The young Karol Wojtyła was involved in an underground theater group.
Due to the occupation of Poland by German and Soviet forces, the hostility to Polish culture forced it underground.
For Wojtyła, this meant that the university where he was studying Polish language and literature was shut down. Many artists and scholars were killed, and others—including Wojtyła—were made to do hard manual labor, such as working in rock quarries.
According to one source, “The Nazis also waged systematic Kulturkampf by closing libraries and shutting cultural institutions to the Poles. Only Germans could attend plays and concerts or go to museums.”
In the midst of these incredibly difficult times, Wojtyła continued to engage in theater.
In his book Gift and Mystery, Pope John Paul II reflects on his experience with the Rhapsodic Theater, a group founded by Mieczysław Kotlarczyk: “The scenery and decoration were kept to a minimum; our efforts were concentrated essentially on the delivery of the poetic text.”
Participating in or attending these performances would have been extremely dangerous.
The audience arrived for the performance at staggered times so as to avoid detection by the armed Nazi patrols. Inside the apartment, the door was locked, the blinds drawn, the lights lowered. Furniture was pushed aside to make room for the “stage.”“John Paul II—Subversive Actor” by Daniel McInerny
At a time in which it was seen as treasonous to be promoting Polish culture in any way, this “theater of the word” placed the Polish word itself at center stage.
John Paul II would later write his own plays, among them Our God’s Brother and The Jeweler’s Shop.
2. The future Pope wrote poetry.
Wojtyla’s creativity extended beyond performing poetic texts with the Rhapsodic Theater—he also wrote poetry.
According to Witness to Hope, George Weigel’s biography on Pope John Paul II,
During these early years of his priesthood, Karol Wojtyla discovered that…literature, in crucial respects, was a more supple instrument of delving into the hidden depths of the human condition…
Like his plays, Wojtyla’s poetry is a way of “being present” to others in a conversation about the truth of things.George Weigel, Witness to Hope
Much of the pontiff’s poetry is collected in The Place Within. The poems are often arranged in cycles—as a long poem in which shorter poems are contained—and explore the interior thoughts and inner workings of the speaker.
This interiority is particularly clear in the poem cycle “Profiles of a Cyrenean,” in which fourteen different characters—each offering a different facet of the character of Simon of Cyrene—speak into the moment of helping Jesus carry the cross.
In one of the characters, “Melancholic,” the speaker meditates on his hesitancy to take on the cross:
“I would not carry it
and now this pain—
how much longer is it to last?”
In “Actor,” the speaker wonders if all the roles he’s taken on have buried his true self:
“Did not the others crowding in, distort
the man that I am?
…he who survives in me, can he ever
look at himself without fear?”
Each of the speakers in “Profiles of a Cyrenean” offers an invitation to meditate on what it is to grapple with our own difficulties as we attempt to draw closer to Christ.
3. Karol Wojtyła had a passion for skiing.
When it came to recreation, Pope John Paul II’s sport of choice was skiing.
Even after becoming pope, he continued to visit the slopes for a number of years.
The International Skiing History Association even has a page dedicated to him, referring to him as a “lifelong skier” who made time for this sport amid increasing duties:
During his decades as Bishop and Cardinal of Krakow, beginning in 1962, Wojtyla spent two weeks each winter at Poland’s largest resort, Zakopane…lodging in a local convent. The sisters reportedly still have a pair of his leather ski boots.
Not only did the Pope delight in taking to the slopes, he also shared his love with others:
As a young priest in Poland, he was known to take his youth group on many hiking excursions and retreats. Combining catechesis with adventure and athleticism, he understood how the beauty of creation reveals the wonder of its Creator, instilling awe in its observers.“Saint John Paul II’s Favorite Places To Ski And Hike In Poland” by Christine Warner
Today, the love for this encounter of God through nature continues with Camp Wojtyla, an “outdoor adventure program” where young people can grow in faith and love for God and nature in the Rocky Mountains.
4. Pope John Paul II wrote a “Letter to Artists.”
In 1999, Pope John Paul II wrote specifically to artists, encouraging them to use their gifts for the good of the world.
Noting “the fruitful dialogue between the Church and artists which has gone on unbroken through two thousand years of history, and which still, at the threshold of the Third Millennium, offers rich promise for the future,” he reflects on the special vocation of artists:
The artist has a special relationship to beauty. In a very true sense it can be said that beauty is the vocation bestowed on him by the Creator in the gift of “artistic talent”. And, certainly, this too is a talent which ought to be made to bear fruit, in keeping with the sense of the Gospel parable of the talents (cf. Mt 25:14-30).
Here we touch on an essential point. Those who perceive in themselves this kind of divine spark which is the artistic vocation—as poet, writer, sculptor, architect, musician, actor and so on—feel at the same time the obligation not to waste this talent but to develop it, in order to put it at the service of their neighbour and of humanity as a whole.Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II
In reading this letter, it’s abundantly clear that the Pope himself understood and possessed the heart of an artist, and believed that artists can help tell the story of God’s redemption to a brokenhearted world.
For a unique reading of parts of John Paul II’s letter, check out this video.
5. Pope John Paul II offered new ways to pray and live out our faith—including to the youth!
A creative spirit marked Pope John Paul II’s efforts to engage Catholics in their faith. He modelled a living faith, one that always called for deepening.
John Paul II also had a special love for the youth. In 1984, he invited young people to what was essentially the first World Youth Day to join him in St. Peter’s Square for prayer and community on Palm Sunday.
What followed was the development of International World Youth Days that have drawn young people from all over the world. Millions of youth have gone on pilgrimage to the World Youth Day sites, which have included Denver, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, Kraków, and most recently, Panama City.
Not only did Pope John Paul II invite Catholics into new ways of evangelization, he also enriched contemplative prayer by adding the Luminous Mysteries to the Rosary, which are traditionally prayed on Thursdays.
According to the website for the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C., this is a relatively recent devotion: “Instituted by Pope John Paul II in 2002 in his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, the Luminous Mysteries, also referred to as the Mysteries of Light, demonstrate the light of God manifested through Jesus.”
They illuminate Christ’s identity as Son of God, and remind us that we too have sonship and daughtership in the Father.
John Paul II: A True Renaissance Man
It’s clear that Saint John Paul II was not only a wonderful pope, but a true Renaissance Man.
His love for literature, philosophy, nature, creative writing, and the human person all became a part of how he evangelized the world.
Like him, may we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us into deeper love for God through our delight in beauty and the joy of creatively sharing our faith.
How has Pope St. John Paul II played a role in your Catholic faith?
What is your favorite thing about this holy man?
Who else would you like to learn more about?
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