Pope explores life, death in his new book of poetry

Friday, March 7, 2003

VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II's new book of poetry, a three-part meditation on nature, life and death -- including his own -- makes clear he has no plans to step down.

"Roman Triptych" is the first book of poetry John Paul has written since becoming pope in 1978. Vatican officials said the poems came out of a trip to his beloved Poland last summer.

The slim, burgundy-covered volume was published Thursday in John Paul's native Polish, although translations in English, French, Spanish, Italian and German are ready, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters.

The frail 82-year-old pope has spoken about his own mortality in recent years, referring to the "twilight years" of his papacy.

But "Roman Triptych" is the first published work by the pope discussing his own passing.

He makes the reference in Part II of the three-part epic, describing the frescoed Sistine Chapel, where cardinals gathered to elect him pope during a conclave in 1978.

He writes: "And so it will be again, when the need arises after my death."

There was some speculation that John Paul, who suffers from the symptoms of Parkinson's disease and knee and hip ailments, might announce his retirement during his emotional trip home to Poland last August.

Writing after his return, the pope makes clear he intends to carry on with his mission until he dies and that his successor will only be chosen "after my death."

In Poland, where the book was launched in John Paul's spiritual hometown of Krakow, "Roman Triptych" is already a best seller, with orders placed for about 80 percent of the initial printing of 300,000.

Marek Skwarnicki, the pontiff's friend of almost 50 years, described the work as a "credo at a time of great spiritual chaos, amid a doubting world, threatened by wars and by terrorism."

"The pope wrote it as someone knowing that he is at the end of his time -- somebody already seeing God and talking about that to others," he said at the presentation in Krakow, where the future pope, Karol Wojtyla, lived as archbishop.

The 40-page work includes drawings by Michelangelo and two pages of photocopied text in the pope's even handwriting. The Polish version was accompanied by a CD recording of a popular actor reading the poetry.

The volume is divided into three parts: "The Stream," "Meditations on the Book of Genesis: At the Threshold of the Sistine Chapel" and "A Hill in the Land of Moria."

In the first section, John Paul expresses wonderment at a mountain stream snaking down a mountainside, and notes that to find its source, "you have to go up, against the current."

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a close papal adviser, said the section was key to understanding the rest of the book.

"The spiritual pilgrimage undertaken in the text is toward the source. Upon arrival, the true surprise is that the 'beginning' also reveals the 'end,"' Ratzinger said.

In Part II, John Paul reflects on Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, which depict scenes from the book of Genesis -- the biblical beginning of time -- as well as the end of life, the Last Judgment.

The final section of the book takes place in Ur, the traditional birthplace of the prophet Abraham in present-day Iraq, and concerns Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his only son.

Ratzinger called the book "an immense arc" tracing a path from life's beginnings to its end. He said readers would most likely be "moved" by the second part of the volume, in which the pope marvels at the Last Judgment and speaks of the conclave to choose his successor.

The young Wojtyla studied literature at the Jagiellonian University, and later published poems, plays and essays during his decades as a priest, bishop and cardinal.

A collection of poems Wojtyla wrote before becoming pope was published in Poland in 1980, and during the 1990s, he published the autobiographical works "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" and "Gift and Mystery."

Navarro-Valls noted that five years ago, during one of his trips to the Alps, John Paul was asked if he still wrote poetry.

"His answer, and I remember it well, was 'No, this is a closed chapter of my life,"' Navarro-Valls said.

"Today, the closed chapter reopens," he said.

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