The Greater Freedom: Karol Wojtyla and Our God’s Brother

Saint Albert Chmielowski, Pope John Paul II, and Krzysztof Zanussi’s film

As a seminarian in the 1940s, the future Pope St. John Paul II wrote a play about a Polish artist turned religious who helped inspire his vocation. In 1997, a film adaptation costarring Christoph Waltz was directed by Krzysztof Zanussi (Life for Life).

This essay and my interview with Zanussi originally appeared in the companion booklet to Ignatius Press’ DVD edition of Our God’s Brother (buy at Amazon).
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“Can one serve art and God both at the same time?”

At one point such a question must have loomed in the mind of young Karol Wojtyla, who would one day be Pope John Paul II. Brilliant and gifted, the young Wojtyla was so full of promise and potential that it was almost too much — a man of too many talents and passions for almost any one path in life.

Athlete, philologist, actor and playwright, philosopher, theologian: Wojtyla was all of these and more, and any one of them could have been the stuff of a rich and full life. He could have married, had children, and taught them to play soccer and to ski, to speak a dozen languages, to write anything from drama to moral theology, and of course to pray and serve God.

At one point in his youth those close to him expected him to choose art, the world of theater. But Wojtyla also felt drawn to a life consecrated wholly to God, to the priesthood.

During this time he discovered a kinship to another devout and talented Polish Krakovian, who had died four years before his own birth: Adam Chmielowski.

Adam Chmielowski and Karol Wojtyla

Also known as Brother Albert or “our God’s brother,” Adam Chmielowski was a Polish aristocrat who, like Wojtyla, had been orphaned at an early age. Born in 1845, he too was multi-talented, studying agriculture and engineering in his youth before establishing himself as a celebrated artist, a painter of both secular and sacred subjects.

Like Wojtyla, Chmielowski was deeply religious, and struggled with a sense of duty to God transcending that of an ordinary career, or even that of a painter of sacred images.

At last Chmielowski made a decision that captured the young Wojtyla’s imagination: In 1887, he turned his back entirely on his artistic career and his aristocratic heritage, adopting a sackcloth habit and the name Brother Albert, and living among the poor as a Third Order Franciscan.

He had always been socially conscious, concerned with politics and injustice — at 18 he had fought in the 1863 January Uprising against the Russian Federation, losing his left leg below the knee — and he ultimately turned his attention to serving the poor of Krakow: giving his possessions to the poor, serving homeless shelters, even taking beggars into his home and feeding them.

At last Chmielowski made a decision that captured the young Wojtyla’s imagination: In 1887, he turned his back entirely on his artistic career and his aristocratic heritage, adopting a sackcloth habit and the name Brother Albert, and living among the poor as a Third Order Franciscan. A year later he took religious vows and founded a new religious community that would come to be known as the Albertine Brothers (and, later, the Albertine Sisters).

This act of sacrificing a life of art, culture and society in favor of a religious vocation helped to inspire Wojtyla’s choice to enter the underground seminary during the Nazi occupation of Krakow.

While still in seminary, Wojtyla completed the first draft of Our God’s Brother, a play of sorts about Chmielowski that he intended as a way of repaying his “debt of gratitude” to the man — and also, no doubt, as a way of exploring the choices he had made and the path he was on. Wojtyla continued to revise the drama into his priesthood until 1950.

An “encyclical for several voices”

Wojtyla described Our God’s Brother in his introduction not as a drama but a work of “inner theater,” an “attempt to penetrate the man.” Like his other theatrical compositions (including The Jeweler’s Shop, subtitled “a meditation on the sacrament of marriage passing at times into drama”), Our God’s Brother is less driven by action or dialogue than by interior monologues that are more philosophical than psychological…

Note: The remainder of this essay is currently available in the companion booklet to Ignatius Press’ DVD edition of Our God’s Brother (buy at Amazon).

Related

“You do it for Christ, and forget the rest” ARTICLE

“You do it for Christ, and forget the rest”

Krzysztof Zanussi on Our God’s Brother, Adam Chmielowski, Pope John Paul II, and how he discovered Christoph Waltz.

Life for Life: Maximilian Kolbe, Martyr of Auschwitz ARTICLE

Life for Life: Maximilian Kolbe, Martyr of Auschwitz (1991)

Two great mysteries hover over the cardinal moment in St. Maximilian Kolbe’s life, a quiet exchange of words with the deputy camp commander at Auschwitz-Birkenau heard by few and lasting probably less than a minute.