At Oxford: A new play on Pope John Paul II

At Oxford: A new play on Pope John Paul II


Press Release by Leonie Caldecott:

“Through the theatre, man acquires the habit of looking for meaning at a higher and less obvious level. In theatre man attempts a kind of transcendence, endeavoring both to observe and to judge his own truth, in virtue of a transformation… by which he tries to gain clarity about himself.”  Hans Urs von Balthasar

There are many reasons for putting on a play, in Easter Week, about John Paul II.  He is going to be beatified at the end of that week, on the Feast of Divine Mercy, a mere six years after his death.  So we need to remember why he is such an important figure in the Church, a figure for whom Pope Benedict has overturned all the usual norms.  Yet as John Paul II said himself: “I can only be understood from within” (cited in Msgr Oder’s book, “Why he is a Saint” p. 133).  For me, this was the cue that led to the writing of THE QUALITY OF MERCY.  I wanted to create a forum in which the man, Karol Wojtyla, could be encountered as a person – a person you might meet, say, on a hike through the mountains.  A person who could help you with the dilemmas and questions of your life.  A person who could lead you to the One in whom your life finds true meaning and richness: Jesus Christ.  In other words, a reliable guide for our times.

I have therefore portrayed the new Beatus, not so much in terms of his life story (this has been brilliantly captured in biographies such as George Weigel’s, or in the film “Karol: A man who became Pope”), but rather in terms of his charism, the mystical vision at the heart of his pontificate.  In his very first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, he wrote, “God entered the history of humanity and, as a man, became an actor in that history.”  As Father Peter John Cameron has pointed out, it is no coincidence that John Paul II conceived of salvation history in this way.  For as a young man, he was fascinated by the theatre, and had he not become a priest, he would certainly have become a professional actor and director.  Even as a priest, and then a bishop, he encouraged the creation of ‘mystery plays’.  As a young man involved with the “Rhapsodic Theatre” in Warsaw, he wrote that “drama fulfills its social function not so much by demonstrating action, as by demonstrating it slowed down, by demonstrating the paths on which it matures in human thought and down which departs from that thought, to express itself externally.”

The premise of THE QUALITY OF MERCY is based on this idea.  Where, in the slow reprise of a life well-lived might the dying actor-Pope go, in his mind?  His last words thanking young people for coming to pray for him in St Peters Square during that week made me feel that he was thinking of them in particular.  As the sands of his earthly time touched eternity, might this most pastoral of men not dream of walking, one last time, with a group of young people in the mountains, amidst the beauty of God’s creation, helping them to find the beauty of truth in their own lives?  What then would he have said to them, how would he have ‘accompanied’ them in their own journey of faith?  And most importantly of all, how would he have helped them to understand the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ, as it touched their lives and his own, culminating in that death on the vigil of the feast of Divine Mercy, which he himself had instituted for the whole Church a few years earlier?  How would he make them feel the quality of mercy, and its transformative effect, in their own lives?

THE QUALITY OF MERCY is our attempt to use the very medium which Pope John Paul II appreciated so well, in order to express his vision of faith and his profound understanding of human experience.  It touches on all the principal themes of his teaching, from the Theology of the Body to the mystery of vocation, not in a didactic way. It uses music, vocal recordings, choral speaking, scriptural imagery and realistic drama to encompass that which he had closest to his heart:  the truth that only Love ‘makes life alive’.  And only in faith does love find its true expression.  Furthermore, as he said in his Letter to Artists (1999), “unless faith becomes culture, it has not been really welcomed, full lived, humanly rethought.”  And for John Paul II, theatre is the great cultural medium for this task. —

“In situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience… Art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption… The Church is especially… keen that in our own time there be a new alliance with artists… I appeal to you, artists of the written and spoken word, of the theatre and music… I appeal especially to you, Christian artists: I wish to remind each of you that you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man.” (Letter to Artists)

Note: Please visit the Caldecott’s website/blog Beauty for Truth’s Sake .

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