George Weigel on the Pope's New Poetry

"Sistine Chapel Seems a Privileged 'Space' for John Paul II"

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WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 20, 2003 (Zenit.org).- In his 82nd year, John Paul II has come out with his first of poetry since becoming Pope.



"Roman Triptych" was a fruit of his trip to Poland last summer. On March 7, ZENIT published a translation of part of the work. The excerpted part includes "Meditations on the Book of Genesis at the Threshold of the Sistine Chapel."

ZENIT asked papal biographer George Weigel his impressions about the part that has appeared in English so far.

Q: It's significant that one of the busiest men in the world finds time -- makes the time -- to write poetry. What does that say about John Paul II?

Weigel: The Holy Father is man of wide-ranging interests and extraordinary energy. His leisure time -- spent reading contemporary philosophy, for example -- is one part of a very integrated life.

The Holy Father is also a man who believes that nothing in life is merely accidental: persons, situations, encounters with others are all, for him, moments which he believes are caught up in God's providential purposes in history.

The Pope is certainly "busy," in the conventional sense of the term, but I think it's more accurate to say that he lives his life intensely -- because of his profound conviction that all of life, having been touched by Christ, is a preparation for eternal life.

I was frankly surprised that the Pope had returned to poetry -- not because of "time" issues, but because he had once said that poetry was a closed chapter in his life.

His last pre-papal poem, "Stanislaus," is a very moving reflection on his martyr-predecessor as archbishop of Krakow and on living life vocationally. It seemed a fitting conclusion to the pre-papal "chapter" of the Pope's life.

Now, clearly, he has changed his mind; you'd have to ask him why. My assumption is that there were things that he wanted to say -- things he thought important to say -- that could best be said in this distinctive way.

Q. So poetry allows John Paul II to say things that wouldn't be suitable in other contexts?

Weigel: I'm not sure "suitable" is quite the right term. Karol Wojtyla has always spoken in many voices, and he chooses the voice to suit the occasion and the material.

As a priest and bishop in Poland, he gave philosophical lectures, he gave sermons and homilies, he spoke on great public occasions, he wrote poems and plays, he wrote pastoral letters -- they were all the same Karol Wojtyla, speaking in different "voices" as the circumstances demanded.

Popes, too, speak in many voices: magisterial, doctrinal, pastoral, prophetic. This Pope, being a literary man, also speaks in the voice of an author who believes that writing is a form of conversation, of personal encounter, with one's readers.

One intriguing example of this was the Pope's international best seller, "Crossing the Threshold of Hope." It simply doesn't fit into any of the standard categories of papal writing. Some might find that odd, even threatening.

John Paul II was content to let theologians figure out where "Threshold" fit, so to speak, in the taxonomy of papal writings; he had things to say -- profoundly evangelical things -- and he simply said them in the form of a book.

Throughout his literary life, Karol Wojtyla has believed that there are things that need saying that can best be said, and perhaps only be said, through the medium of poetry. Evidently, there are things he wanted to say now that he believed could best be said, and perhaps only be said, in the form of poetry.

Q. With the references to the Sistine Chapel and the election of his successor -- how do you read that? Is he trying to give advice to the cardinals?

Weigel: The Pope is far too much a respecter of the rights and dignity of others to try to give advice to the cardinal-electors who will choose his successor.

When he suppressed the options of papal election by acclamation and by delegation, leaving only the option of choosing a pope by election, he explicitly stated that this was being done in order to allow the electors to exercise the personal responsibility that belongs to each of them -- and that each of them assumes when he accepts the office of cardinal.

One might even say that the Pope was insisting that the electors exercise the responsibility that is theirs. Remember that this is a man whose signature phrase as a confessor was, "You must decide." Making serious decisions is, in Wojtyla's long-standing view, an integral part of what it means to be a truly human person. So he certainly isn't giving advice to the cardinal-electors.

The Sistine Chapel seems to be a privileged "space" for John Paul II. At its rededication, after the completion of the restoration of Michelangelo's frescoes, he called it the sanctuary of the theology of the body.

In the Sistine Chapel, human beings confront the fact of their creatureliness, in its fragility and grandeur, in a very powerful way. Then there is the sheer beauty of the Sistine Chapel -- an intimation of the beauty of the Kingdom, of heaven. And then there is the awesome imagery of the Last Judgment. It's very difficult to ponder that extraordinary work of art and not get a very profound sense of the truth of "You must decide."

So it's an appropriate place to choose the successor of Peter, the keeper of the keys.

The Pope's poetic reflections on the Sistine Chapel as a privileged place of encounter between human agency and God's providence -- an encounter that can have its stormy moments, as we know from the history of conclaves -- remind the whole Church that what happens in that place is, viewed through the prism of faith, part of the divine dispensation of history.

This is not a pious myth, the Sistine Chapel reminds us. This is all for real.

Q: What is the historical significance of this Pope as artist? Is he trying to reconcile art and faith?

Weigel: Modern religious thought has generally found room for truth and goodness as attributes of the divine, but it's been perhaps less attentive to beauty.

Yet, for the ancient philosophers as well as for the Church over many centuries, beauty, too, is revelatory of the truth of things -- and the truth of things always points toward the one Truth, who is God.

So beauty is a path to God, and the artist, in creating beautiful things, can be one someone who attunes us to the rumors of angels -- as Peter Berger happily called them -- that are all around us.

The Pope is certainly not opposed to modern trends in art. His poetry and drama are quite modern in form; his friends in Krakow include modern painters; he commissioned one of Poland's most famous modern composers, Henryk Gorecki, to write a piece for the anniversary of St. Stanislaus that the Pope commemorated on his return to Krakow in 1979.

But modern artistic forms can be damaged, even corrupted, by nihilism: music, the plastic arts, and literature self-consciously created in order to proclaim the utter meaningless of life. The Pope's Letter to Artists was, in this sense, an appeal from one artist to others to rediscover the dignity of the artistic vocation, which has to do with beauty, which has to do with truth -- which has to do with God.