Pope John Paul II canonized Brother Albert in 1989, giving him, like St. Botolph, the feast day of June 17—today: a day, perhaps, to think about revolutionaries. John Paul himself cited Brother Albert’s influence on his thinking as he, too, came of age in Krakow, and back in 1949, he wrote a play about Albert called Our God’s Brother.
Or a play, anyway, at least partially about Albert Chmielowski—and partially about Vladimir Lenin, the Marxist who would lead the communists to victory in the Russian Revolution. But Our God’s Brother seems a play that is also about Karol Wojtyła, its author—the future pope as a young Catholic playwright, working his way through his own questions about art, faith, and politics, set in the context of another Russian domination of Poland, as the Soviet Union seized control at the end of the Second World War.
Drawing on the uncertain legend that Brother Albert had once met Lenin in exile, Our God’s Brother imagines a conversation between “Adam,” the Chmielowski character, and “the Stranger,” the Lenin character, about the causes, goals, and strategies of revolution. The communist Stranger is no monster, in Karol Wojtyła’s play. He is presented as genuinely concerned with the poor who so moved Brother Albert, differing only in the strategy of how to help them: Should we use the Marxists’ revolutionary violence to overturn the whole social order, or use the Albertines’ charity and shelter?
As the play develops, however, it becomes clear that the Stranger cannot see the poor as anything other than the poor. All the individuality of people disappears into broad social categories to be manipulated toward revolution. Real human beings barely exist for the Stranger, even while Adam sees them as the center of care. The Stranger’s conversation helps Adam realize that art is not enough—a concern shared by the painter Chmielowski and the playwright Wojtyła—but, even more, the conversation helps Adam understand why Communism cannot substitute for Christianity. True freedom requires the transformation of evil into good in the converted heart. Political liberation will always fail to produce humane culture without Christ’s death and resurrection.
The loss of his leg and his painting signaled the future victory of Brother Albert—and it’s a pattern we’ve seen before, in things great and small. It’s the pattern of defeat and victory, loss and gain, signaled most of all by the Cross.
Joseph Bottumis a bestselling author who lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota and author of An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America. This is the latest installment in his week-long series of reflections on the Saints.
Read Joseph Bottum’s other essays in this series:
"Seeing Faith: The Martyrdom and Incorruptible Bodies of the Saints"
"A New Mysticism: The Visions, Miracles and Devotion of St. Lutgarde"