The Poetry of Karol Jozef Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II)

The poetry of Pope John Paul II appears below on this page, along with his prose meditations and biographical information that reveals his development as an actor, poet and and writer.

The Bible published by the Roman Catholic Church, the NABRE (New American Bible Revised Edition), doesn't contain a single mention of the word "hell." If this interests you, please click here to learn Why hell is vanishing from the Bible. This is also true for the HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible) published by the famously literal and conservative Southern Baptist Convention.

If the subject of biblical inerrancy interests you, please read Is the Bible infallible, or the inerrant word of God?

Karol Jozef Wojtyla was an unknown Polish poet long before he became known to the world as Pope John Paul II. Some of the poems below were written when he was in his twenties. Others were written while he was a parish priest and auxiliary bishop of Kraków, during which time his work appeared in Polish journals under the pseudonym Andrzej Jawien. His poetry was later collected and published in The Place Within — The Poetry of Pope John Paul II, with translations and notes by Jerzy Peterkiewicz.

"From dust you came, and to dust you shall return";
What had shape is now shapeless.
What was alive is now dead.
What was beautiful is now the ugliness of decay. And yet I do not altogether die,
what is indestructible in me remains!…
What is imperishable in me
now stands face to face before Him Who Is!
From "Meditations on the Book of Genesis: At the Threshold of the Sistine Chapel"

It bears noting that other poets would and have argued with Pope John Paul and his theology. For example:

Simple Simon, or, Multiplication Tabled
for Pope John Paul II
by Michael R. Burch

Be fruitful and multiply?
Great advice .. for a fruitfly!
But for women and men,
Simple Simon, say "When!"

In my poem, "Simon" is a pun, as the name of the first Pope was Simon Peter. But Simon Peter was married, so this begs the question: why are Roman Catholic priests required to remain celibate, if the first and greatest Pope was married? This question seems especially pertinent today because many children have been molested and raped by Catholic priests. Is priestly celibacy the "wisdom of God" or the folly of an error-plagued human religion?

Wojtyla was born in Wadowice, in an apartment that looked out on the Church of Our Lady where he would later serve as an altar boy. His birthday was May 18, 1920, an auspicious day for modern Poles, now known as "the Polish Miracle." On that day, Marshal Jozef Pilsudski won a major battle and seized Kiev from the Soviet Union. It was Poland's first major military victory in over two centuries. Wojtyla's middle name was chosen by his father in honor of Jozef Pilsudski.

It is here, beneath this wondrous Sistine profusion of color
that the Cardinals assemble —
the community responsible for the legacy of the
keys of the Kingdom.
They come here, to this very place.
And once more Michelangelo wraps them in his vision.
"In him we live and move and have our being."
The colors of the Sistine will then speak the
word of the Lord:
Tu es Petrus (Mt 16:18) — once heard by Simon, son of John.
"To you I will give the keys of the Kingdom."
During the Conclave Michelangelo must teach them —
Do not forget: Omnia nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos Eius.
You who see all, point to him!
He will point him out …
From "Meditations on the Book of Genesis: At the Threshold of the Sistine Chapel"

Known to family and friends as Lolek (a nickname that translates as "Chuck"), the future John Paul II learned about suffering at an early age when his mother died of heart and kidney problems in 1929, shortly before his ninth birthday.

Over this, your white grave
the flowers of life in white—
so many years without you—
how many have passed out of sight?
Over this your white grave
covered for years, there is a stir
in the air, something uplifting
and, like death, beyond comprehension.
Over this your white grave
oh, mother, can such loving cease?
for all his filial adoration
a prayer:
Give her eternal peace—

"Over This, Your White Grave"

The poem above and the one below, both written by the time he was twenty, show the heart of a motherless young boy through the pen of talented poet.

Don't lower the wave of my heart,
it swells to your eyes, mother;
don't alter love, but bring the wave to me
in your translucent hands.
He asked for this.
I am John the fisherman. There isn't much
in me to love.
I feel I am still on that lake shore,
gravel crunching under my feet—
and, suddenly—Him.
You will embrace His mystery in me no more,
yet quietly I spread round your thoughts like myrtle.
And calling you Mother—His wish—
I beseech you: may this word
never grow less for you.
True, it's not easy to measure the meaning
of the words He breathed into us both
so that all earlier love in those words
should be concealed.
"John Beseeches Her"

When he was twelve, Wojtyla's brother Edmund, a 26-year-old physician in the town of Bielsko, died of scarlet fever. Wojtyla himself had two brushes with death as a youth. He was hit once by a streetcar and again by a truck. "The pope's youth wasn't happy," Father Joseph Vandrisse, a former French missionary and now a journalist, told TIME Magazine. "He has meditated a lot on the meaning of suffering..."

As a young scholar, Karol Wojtyla "drank in the suffering Poland" through literature and history. He loved the 19th century poets Slowacki and Mickiewicz, "in whom the beauty and pain of Poland was so alive." He memorized Slowacki's "The Slavic Pope," a prophetic poem (which proved to be truly prophetic!) about a pope from the East who "will not flee the sword ... Like God, he will bravely face the sword." [Readers of our Ronald Reagan poetry page will find highly interesting instances of things similarly prophetic: i.e., the Tampico double rainbow over Reagan's birthplace the day before he was elected president, an actual prophecy made by George Otis, and the parallels of Reagan's life to That Printer of Udell's by Harold Bell Wright. It seems the Evil Empire never had a chance, and that there were signs and miracles to that effect in the lives of a Polish Catholic pope and an Irish Protestant president!]

Karol Wojtyla in 1938Like Ronald Reagan, Wojtyla was an actor. And a dark-haired, ruggedly handsome actor at that, as his picture to the left attests. In the early 1930's, he met Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk, who would teach him (and isn't it an interesting "method" for a future Pope!) "the Living Word," a style of performance rooted in Polish songs and  Polish poetry as sung and recited after dinner in country manor houses. In Pope John Paul II: The Life of Karol Wojtyla, Fr. Mieczyslaw Malinski recounts that it was during this time that Wojtyla first came to the attention of the Archbishop of Kraków, Adamo Stefano Sapieha. Sapieha was visiting his school and young Wojtyla gave the welcoming speech. Impressed, Sapieha asked whether Karol intended to become a priest. A priest replied that his interests seemed to lie with the theater, "an answer which disappointed the archbishop!" To make matters perhaps worse, Wojtyla later joined an experimental theater group known as "Studio 38." His love of the theater persisted, because later as a cardinal, he celebrated holidays with Krakow actors.

So many grew round me, through me,
from my self, as it were.
I became a channel, unleashing a force
called man.
Did not the others crowding in, distort
the man that I am?
Being each of them, always imperfect,
myself to myself too near,
he who survives in me, can he ever
look at himself without fear?

In the fall of 1938, Wojtyla enrolled at Kraków's Jagiellonian University, where his primary studies were literature and philosophy.  However, the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 changed everything, and Wojtyla was to write to Kotlarczyk: "Now life is waiting in line for bread, scavenging for sugar, and dreaming of coal and books." It is reported that Wojtyla was in church for when Nazi bombs first fell on Poland, September 1, 1939. [If you look closely at the first three digits of that date, 9-1-1939, you'll notice that Poland suffered a calamitous 9-1-1 long before the United States lost its twin towers.]

With mercury we measure pain
as we measure the heat of bodies and air;
but this is not how to discover our limits—
you think you are the center of things.
If you could only grasp that you are not:
the center is He,
and He, too, finds no love—-
why don't you see?
The human heart—what is it for?
Cosmic temperature. Heart. Mercury.
"Girl Disappointed in Love"

Wojtyla continued his studies until the Nazis closed the university. The Nazis also closed libraries and only Germans were allowed to attend plays and concerts. A Pole could be shot for going to the theater. In November of 1940 Wojtyla took a job as a stone-cutter at a quarry near Kraków. 

No, not just hands drooping with the hammer's weight,
not the taut torso, muscles shaping their own style,
but thought informing his work,
deep, knotted in wrinkles on his brow,
and over his head, joined in a sharp arc, shoulders and veins vaulted.

Around this time, he met a tailor, Jan Tyranowski, who introduced him to St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, "setting him on a deeper spiritual path." And yet his passion for the theater remained undimmed: when Kotlarczyk came to Krakow in the summer of 1941, Wojtyla and his friends helped him start the underground Rhapsodic Theater, at the risk of their lives. Wojtyla wrote to his teacher and mentor that he wanted to build "a theater that will be a church where the national spirit will burn." The Rhapsodic Theater "embraced the theatrical minimalism of long, static monologues and epic poems." Wojtyla was also a budding playwright. At the age of 19 he had penned a blank verse biblical trilogy of David, Job and Jeremiah. By the age of 21 he was translating Greek tragedies and compiling patriotic Polish poetry. In addition to his more avant-garde work, Wojtyla also wrote a traditional play called "Our God's Brother."

It is reported that once when Wojtyla was clandestinely reciting an hour-long epic poem, Nazi megaphones began blaring forth news of a German victory, and he simply shouted out the remainder of the poem over the megaphones. 

To illustrate the inherent dangers of daring to perform under the pince-nezed noses of the Nazis: members of the Rhapsodic Theater were later deported to Auschwitz. 

Wojtyla "had never been an actor so much as an intoner" and the Rhapsodic Theater shed "all the clutter that gets between actors and their lines. Plot, action, even emotion, amounted to little more than pleasant diversions; the substance was all in what was spoken." 

Wojtyla also joined Jan Tyranowski’s clandestine underground religious circle, The Living Rosary.

In February of 1941, Wojtyla's father, a devout Catholic, died at the age of 61. The pope has said that his father once told him, "I will not live long and would like to be certain before I die that you will commit yourself to God's service." Friends said that when his father died, Karol knelt for 12 hours in prayer at his father's bedside. Soon thereafter, he withdrew from the theater to study for the priesthood, a decision that surprised many of his friends, who tried to convince him that his talent lay in the theater! 

He later said, as pope, "At 20 I had already lost all the people I loved."

Wojtyla was arrested in 1942, but was released because of his job at the quarry, perhaps escaping death because of the value of his muscle, even as others deemed "less valuable" died around him.

He wasn't alone.
His muscles grew into the flesh of the crowd, energy their pulse,
As long as they held a hammer, as long as his feet felt the ground.
And a stone smashed his temples and cut through his heart's chamber.
They took his body and walked in a silent line
Toil still lingered about him, a sense of wrong.
They wore gray blouses, boots ankle-deep in mud.
In this, they showed the end.
How violently his time halted: the pointers on the low voltage dials jerked, then dropped to zero again.
White stone now within him, eating into his being, taking over enough of him to turn him into stone.
Who will lift up that stone, unfurl his thoughts again under the cracked temples?
So plaster cracks on the wall.
They laid him down, his back on a sheet of gravel.
His wife came, worn out with worry; his son returned from school
Should his anger now flow into the anger of others?
It was maturing in him through his own truth and love
Should he be used by those who came after, deprived of substance, unique and deeply his own?
The stones on the move again; a wagon bruising the flowers.
Again the electric current cuts deep into the walls.
But the man has taken with him the world's inner structure, where the greater the anger, the higher the explosion of love.
"The Quarry"

Jagiellonian University reopened in 1942 and Wojtyla entered the faculty of theology with the intention of becoming a priest. In 1944, he attended an underground seminary at the residence of Archbishop Sapieha, who was soon to become Cardinal Sapieha. Around this time, Wojtyla was hit by a car while saving a man's life. After the "liberation" of Kraków by Soviet forces, Wojtyla completed his studies and in 1946 was ordained as a priest by Cardinal Sapieha, in Sapieha's private chapel. In his book, "A Gift and Mystery," published 50 years later when he was Pope John Paul II, he said that he still feels a debt to friends who suffered "on the great altar of history" during World War II, while he studied in Sapieha's clandestine seminary.

The greatness of work is inside man.

Wojtyla began doctoral studies in philosophy in 1947 and earned his doctorate in 1948 (he wrote his dissertation on The Problem of Faith in the Works of St. John of the Cross). He went on to earn a doctorate in moral theology from Jagiellonian University. In 1954 Wojtyla accepted a non-tenured professorship at the University of Lublin (the only Catholic university in the communist world) and would teach in various capacities for the next 20 years. Catholic News Service reports that "As a young priest, he was a favorite with students at Lublin University who flocked to his classes and joined him on camping, hiking and canoeing trips." He also founded a service that dealt with marital problems, including family planning, alcoholism and physical abuse. TIME Magazine once called it "perhaps the most successful marriage institute in Christianity." 

He published more than 100 articles and several books, and in 1956 became a full professor at the Institute of Ethics in Lublin. According to Catholic News Service, "Father Wojtyla's interest in outdoor activities remained strong, and younger companions called him 'the eternal teen-ager.' Groups of students regularly joined him for hiking, skiing, bicycling, camping and kayaking, accompanied by prayer, outdoor Masses and theological discussions."

His first book, Love and Responsibility, was published in 1958. It advocated equality between married men and women and taught that sexuality between married couples was good: close to if not radical ideas for the church at the time. It was a bestseller.

Characteristically for the athletic, outdoors-loving Wojtyla, he was on a kayaking trip in 1958 when, at age 38, he was made auxiliary bishop of Kraków, the youngest bishop in Poland's history.

In 1960 Wojtyla returned fleetingly to playwriting with the "dense and almost counterdramatic" play "The Jeweler's Shop." The play was performed several times on Polish radio, then resurfaced in the 1980s as a movie starring Burt Lancaster. Wojtyla, by then Pope John Paul II, received a screenwriting credit. According to a reviewer, the play "grapples ... with two of his chief concerns as Pontiff—how to articulate true goodness and how to foster love. It is, it was, as the chorus councils in the first act: 'words and hearts, words and hearts.'"

In 1963 he was promoted to archbishop and in 1967 he became Cardinal Wojtyla, at a time when the Polish Catholic church was being severely oppressed by Poland's communist government. His appointment as cardinal by Pope Paul VI was welcomed by the government, but only because he was woefully underestimated.

Fear not. Man's daily deeds have a wide span,
a strait riverbed can't imprison them long.

The Polish secret police, the UB, had not been worried at Wojtyla's promotion to archbishop, considering him a poet and apolitical dreamer. In 1967, the UB (the Polish secret police) analyzed Wojtyla as follows: "It can be said that Wojtyla is one of the few intellectuals in the Polish Episcopate. He deftly reconciles ... traditional popular religiosity with intellectual Catholicism ... he has not, so far, engaged in open anti-state activity. It seems that politics are his weaker suit; he is over-intellectualized ... He lacks organizing and leadership qualities, and this is his weakness ..." 

General Wojciech Jaruzelski, former secretary of the Polish Communist Party, later admitted just  how badly Wojtyla had been underestimated: "My Communist colleagues decided that the Bishops ahead of Karol Wojtyla on the list of candidates were not good for the state, so they pushed Karol Wojtyla. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways." Current Biography called Wojtyla "a resilient enemy of Communism and champion of human rights, a powerful preacher and sophisticated intellectual able to defeat Marxists in their own line of dialogue." According to George Weigel, Wojtyla demanded permits to build churches, defended youth groups and ordained priests to work underground in Czechoslovakia. Wojtyla was once asked if he feared retribution from government officials. "I'm not afraid of them," he replied. "They are afraid of me."

In 1969 Wojtyla published The Acting Person, considered his principal academic work.

In 1978 Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II. He is said to have wept that day, October 16th, and to have put his head in his hands. Becoming Pope is "a clear cut off from one's previous life, with no possible return," one biographer wrote.

In 1979 John Paul II made his first trip to Poland as pope. Within a year, Polish tradesmen formed the now-famous Solidarity labor union, headed by Lech Walesa. The pope received Walesa at the Vatican in 1981.

Yet can the current unbind their full strength?
It is he who carries that strength in his hands:
the worker.

On May 13, 1981 John Paul II was shot and severely wounded in an attempted assassination by Mehmet Ali Agca. [In another improbable parallel, Ronald Reagan was also shot and severely wounded by another disturbed assassin, John Hinckley Jr., on March 30, 1981.]

In 1982 the pope and Ronald Reagan first met, in the Vatican. According to Time Magazine they agreed "to undertake a clandestine campaign to hasten the dissolution of the communist empire. ... The operation was focused on Poland ... Both the pope and the president were convinced that Poland could be broken out of the Soviet orbit if the Vatican and the United States committed their resources to destabilizing the Polish government and keeping the outlawed Solidarity movement alive after the declaration of martial law in 1981." According to UPI: "Thus began a series of unofficial, intermittent contacts that some writers and historians have elevated to the status of holy alliance, while others have denied almost their very existence."

Hands are the heart's landscape. They split sometimes
like ravines into which an undefined force rolls.
The very same hands which man only opens
when his palms have had their fill of toil.
Now he sees: because of him alone others can walk in peace.

In 1983 the pope returned to Poland for a second visit. Walesa, who later became the president of Poland, said John Paul II deserves "the greater credit" for the end of communism in Poland: "At the moment when the pope was elected, I think I had, at the most, 20 people that were around me and supported me — and there were 40 million Polish people in the country. However ... a year after (the pope's) visit to Poland, I had 10 million supporters and suddenly we had so many people willing to join the movement. ... I compare this to the miracle of the multiplication of bread in the desert." 

Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005.

Note: the primary sources from which this biography was largely excerpted were "Tu Espetrus" and "John Paul II: His Life and Papacy" by Jane Barnes and Helen Whitney. Other sources included "The priesthood years: rebel with a cause and "Pope and Reagan: allies against communism."

I. Material

Listen: the even knocking of hammers,
so much their own,
I project on to the people
to test the strength of each blow.
Listen now: electric current
cuts through a river of rock.
And a thought grows in me day after day:
the greatness of work is inside man.
Hard and cracked
his hand is differently charged
by the hammer
and thought differently unravels in stone
as human energy splits from the strength of stone
cutting the bloodstream, an artery
in the right place.
Look, how love feeds
on this well-grounded anger
which flows in to people's breath
as a river bent by the wind,
and which is never spoken, but just breaks high vocal cords.
Passers-by scuttle off into doorways,
someone whispers: "Yet here is a great force."
Fear not. Man's daily deeds have a wide span,
a strait riverbed can't imprison them long.
Fear not. For centuries they all stand in Him,
and you look at Him now
through the even knocking of hammers.


Bound are the blocks of stone, the low-voltage wire
cuts deep in their flesh, an invisible whip—
stones know this violence.
When an elusive blast rips their ripe compactness
and tears them from their eternal simplicity,
the stones know this violence.
Yet can the current unbind their full strength?
It is he who carries that strength in his hands:
the worker.


Hands are the heart's landscape. They split sometimes
like ravines into which an undefined force rolls.
The very same hands which man only opens
when his palms have had their fill of toil.
Now he sees: because of him alone others can walk in peace.
Hands are a landscape. When they split, the pain of their sores
surges free as a stream.
But no thought of pain—
no grandeur in pain alone.
For his own grandeur he does not know how to name.


No, not just hands drooping with the hammer's weight,
not the taut torso, muscles shaping their own style,
but thought informing his work,
deep, knotted in wrinkles on his brow,
and over his head, joined in a sharp arc, shoulders and veins vaulted.
So for a moment he is a Gothic building
cut by a vertical thought born in the eyes.
No, not a profile alone,
not a mere figure between God and the stone,
sentenced to grandeur and error.

Man of Destiny
an elegy for John Paul II
by Joe M. Ruggier

He was mighty.  He was strong—a Super-Power ...
He was a Pillar of the Faith, a Tower.
He lasted longer than any Pope but two.
He rent the Iron Curtain, adored the Poor.
He adored Youth; Youth adored Him.
He honored Suffering. He was likewise gentle
with the ignorant ... yet He was worthy of the name
of "intellectual", "man of letters".
He had mastered the Art of body-communication
arising from His genuine theatrical flair—
a dramatist's unerring sense of timing—
conveying innermost Spirit through outward stance.
He was of all the Popes the most widely-traveled
with a reputation for building community
wherever He landed ... His Parish the wide, wide Earth!
He honored five hundred Saints and thrice as many
"Beati", whose glorious ranks He yet may join,
as Time confirms His Holiness ...
a total Man of colossal Honor and Integrity—
"breadwinner" to all the Church. Yet He was gentle
and forbearing with me, a total stranger:
He noticed my writings, however insanely busy ...
and often sent me gracious acknowledgments—
the last received mere days before He died.
The mere touch of His words, as of Christ's garment,
was enough ... allowing me to use Him to grow.
He bore my insults for the Gospel
with a genuine forbearance,
passing them over with a heroic Silence
and always pointing only to what was positive.
May His shining Spirit embrace and shield me always
to inspire and to bless me and encourage me!
May the Father reward Him richly; the Son
confirm the task well-done; and may the Spirit
spread His influence throughout the Ages
through all the Saints He honored, as He tried hard
to build bridges between Heaven and Earth.

Copyright © Joe M. Ruggier, April 5th-9th, 2005