Why a new play about Pope John Paul II offers an original, thought-provoking perspective on the man who became pope

Well! The posts in response to my last blog, about the beatification of the late John Paul II, were very illuminating. And the blog itself has now been posted on The Remnant on-line hit list, under the heading “Praying with pagans is A-OK!” Fame at last.

With all this debate going on, I was heartened to receive an email from a friend, who wrote, “I’m a JP II fan. I was able to get into St Peter’s Square for his funeral (having slept the night before in my sleeping bag in via della Conciliazione to make sure I had a good chance of getting in.) As soon as I heard about the beatification date I booked a flight and a hotel. In my view he was an extraordinary human being, priest, Pope. Totally, totally exceptional. Sure there were problems in the Church during his time but it’s unrealistic to have expected him to sort them all out – in fact he did sort out a number of them.”

When I read this I felt a stab of envy; my chum had managed to get to the funeral of John Paul II and I had not been able to make it. I also remembered a conversation I had once had with another friend who had been a typical, modern, pleasure-seeking pagan. I asked him what had brought about his own conversion.

He said, “I happened to watch a TV programme of the late Pope on a tour in America. The crowd was hectoring him and yelling at him and as I watched this small figure in white being mocked and shouted at, I suddenly saw it was a battle between good and evil – and I wanted to be on the side of the good, alongside the man in white.”

Thinking about the lasting legacy of JP II and in particular, the way he reached out to the young, my attention has been drawn to a new drama on this theme. Called The Quality of Mercy and written by Leonie Caldecott, fresh on the heels of her very successful play last year about the life of St Therese of Lisieux, it will be performed in the Newman Room at the Catholic Chaplaincy, Rose Place, Oxford on 27th, 28th and 29th April, at 8 pm. Tickets are £10 or £5 (concessions).

Reading the script in advance I was struck by the storyline: a group of young people, all with hidden problems and sorrows, are hiking in the Abruzzi mountains in Italy during the week that JP II is dying.

They are joined by a mysterious stranger called “Charlie”, who accompanies them spiritually as well as physically, listening to their grievances, fears and hopes, and gently pointing them towards the meaning of true love: “The source of all true love is the same. It’s the love God showed us on the Cross: the touch of eternal love upon the most painful wounds of man’s earthly existence. All human loves must follow from this… They must be rooted in the complete gift of self. And they have to be purified through suffering.”

“Charlie” (the anglicised version of the JP II’s own name, ‘Karol’) adds: “When we suffer, in union with Christ, we learn to give mercy and to accept mercy.”

By the end of his conversations with these confused young people, they have changed; through him, they have been given a glimpse of the merciful love that can transform their lives if only they will open themselves to it.

As “Charlie” leaves them, “Father Guido”, their own priest, reappears; reflecting on the Holy Father’s last stricken hours, unable to communicate in words, yet giving his faltering blessing to the thousands of people who had spontaneously gathered in St Peter’s Square (how I wish I had been among them!), the priest meditates, “Perhaps he recalled with joy the times when, as a young priest, he walked in the mountains with young people and talked to them about their lives. It is that quality of attention, of interest on the experiences of others that made him the teacher and guide he became…”

Interwoven with the themes of the journey to Emmaus and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice where the concept of mercy is so wonderfully expressed, the Play highlights JP II’s gift of communication, especially with the young. It is a beautiful, thought-provoking and original way of looking at the man who became John Paul II and well worth the effort of travelling to Oxford to watch.

The production coincides with Divine Mercy Sunday, established following the apparitions of Our Lord to the Polish nun, now St Faustina Kowalska, (incidentally, a further enduring gift to the Church on the part of the late pope.)

I am not promoting The Quality of Mercy because my grandson is acting in it (though he is); I am not promoting it to annoy readers of The Remnant (though I will). I am promoting it because, as art is meant to do, it leads one deeper into the great spiritual drama in which we are all engaged: the drama of good and evil and our souls’ eternal future.

We Catholic bloggers – and all those anonymous people who go to considerable trouble to post in their responses to what we write – should try to keep in mind the play’s words: “If only we could always look upon one another with the eyes of mercy…”

Tickets are available on-line from Tickets Oxford at the Oxford Playhouse website or from the Oxford Oratory. Hurry, while they are still available!