UNIVERSAL FATHER

A Life of John Paul II

By Garry O'Connor

Bloomsbury. 436 pp. $24.95

As petitions circulate on the Internet to have Karol Wojtyla proclaimed Pope John Paul the Great, Garry O'Connor, a British biographer best known for his lives of actors and playwrights, finds one measure of that greatness in the late pope's skills as an actor and poet.

In this ambitious and textured biography, completed shortly before the pope's death in April, O'Connor argues that the young aesthete who was a fixture of Krakow's Rhapsodic Theatre in the early 1940s "remained a man who was always acting," even after -- in emulation of the protagonist of one of his plays -- he turned from art to religion.

As a priest, bishop and pope, O'Connor suggests, Wojtyla consecrated the credo of an actor in the Rhapsodic Theatre, modeled after the Greek school of poet-reciters. "The actor is a rhapsodist," Wojtyla wrote. "That does not mean he only recites. On the other hand, it does not mean that he simply 'acts.' Rather, he carries the problem." The problem elucidated by Wojtyla, O'Connor argues, is none other than the alienation dramatized by a more celebrated playwright of the early 20th century, Samuel Beckett.

"The characters in Beckett's work were locked in themselves, unable to turn themselves out to the world," O'Connor writes. "They would like to believe, to be good, to aspire to values. But those values have disappeared. Karol had the historical destiny of his country and the image of Christ in his mind when he faced similar doubt."

The result was a serenity and fortitude in the face of Nazism, communism and capitalist consumerism that, O'Connor suggests, was often mistaken for reactionary obstruction. ("I am not offended when labeled a conservative," O'Connor quotes John Paul as saying. "The pope is not here to make changes but to conserve what he has received into his charge.")

O'Connor sometimes presses his theatrical motif too far, as in his suggestion that perhaps "there is a parallel in that the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, with its Beckettian lapses, stopping and starting, repeated gesture, its festination, changes of mood -- used by the playwright to show the throes of a civilisation, or at least a culture, caught in the irresolution of its own endgame -- have been resisted by the Pope." But O'Connor doesn't allow himself to be so tyrannized by the theatrical conceit as to ignore other influences on the future pope that can't be so slickly schematized.

He is especially impressive in capturing the political and cultural milieu of Poland after World War I and the effect on young Karol of both his father's piety -- the elder Karol Wojtyla reproved his choirboy son for not directing more of his prayers to the Holy Spirit -- and the death when the boy was only 8 of his mother, Emilia, whom young Karol came to identify with the Virgin Mary. O'Connor also offers a fascinating glimpse at a breakaway sect in Poland known as the Mariavites, who, beginning in 1928, ordained nuns as priests -- the same practice Pope John Paul II would declare to be incompatible with church teachings and the Scriptures.

More tantalizing, O'Connor suggests that much of John Paul's theology, particularly his view of sex and marriage, was shaped by his intimate friendships with women. How intimate? Without providing definitive evidence, O'Connor endorses Paul Johnson's supposition that the young Karol had "girlfriends" before embracing priestly chastity.

In any case, O'Connor notes, Wojtyla in his preachings and writings about sex "always acknowledged his own sexual drive, always felt close to it while offering it as a major part of his commitment." In an assertion that will raise some eyebrows, O'Connor even portrays Wojtyla as a champion of the female orgasm, quoting him as warning self-centered husbands that "there is a danger her experience of [sex] will be qualitatively inferior, will not involve her fully as a person."

In expounding the pope's "theology of the body" (a commonly used term for John Paul's sexual theology), as in rehearsing his exploits on the world stage (offering a more nuanced view than some commentators of the pope's role in the collapse of communism), O'Connor doesn't cast himself as a polemicist for his subject's views.

Still, like the rhapsodic actor, he "carries the problem" in a way that leaves little doubt that he admires not only the clarity of John Paul's critique of contemporary civilization but also its truth. O'Connor concedes that, toward the end of his life, John Paul railed against the spirit of the age "as if he felt that if he did not hold to a rigid line everything would fall apart." But O'Connor clearly thinks that the alternative is worse.

John Paul's detractors, O'Connor writes, "believe for a variety of reasons (e.g., socialism, Communism, imperialism, Fascism, utilitarianism, natural selection, situationism, determinism, scientism, etc.) that mankind is not capable of responsible choice. John Paul's assertion [is] that the spiritual rights of mankind (ignoring for the moment the political and social rights) come only from the spiritual stature of man derived from and created by God." Even readers who might bridle at such certitude will find "Universal Father" a powerful portrait of the artist who became pope.