In his play, The Holy Father’s Skis, Jerzy Pilch develops a theme that appeared in his last novel, City of Woes (2004). The play is set in the present day in the village of Granatowe Góry, situated in the foothills of the mountains, where the locals are electrified by the news that Pope John Paul II is apparently planning a pilgrimage and intends to visit the place where he used to go skiing in his youth, and – who knows? – might stay there for some time. The protagonists are original characters who are gifted, as ever in Pilch’s writing, with unusual charisma. They include Father Kubala (“a Bible expert who knows all about cars”, the mad teacher Professor Chmielowski (“a passionate football fan”), the mayor of Granatowe Góry, Jan Nepomucen Wojewoda (“an anticlerical with left-wing leanings”) and his unhappy wife, Joanna What-Shall-I-Wear. Rumours of the Pope’s imminent arrival prompt them to re-evaluate their own lives and make somewhat chaotic attempts to come into conformance with the moral standards of the Pope’s teachings, which naturally leads to all sorts of comical incidents. However, it would be hard to describe this play as a comedy – it is far more the author’s sad and bitter attempt to settle scores with Polish Catholicism, which involves more empty ritual than concentrating one’s thoughts in prayer, and also an effort to understand the phenomenon of the Pope, who is loved by the Poles, revered even as a ‘divine idol’, but who at the same time is regarded more and more rarely as a spiritual leader or authority.
Instead of fearful anticipation of Judgement Day, there is an idyllic mood, a pleasant picnic atmosphere, lots of lights, a panorama of Granatowe Góry, and a crowd of people singing and dancing like at a folk festival. Professor Chmielowski appears on a hilltop or on any otherpiece of raised ground, full of inner radiance and blitheness of spirit, and despite having rather tousled hair and rumpled clothes, we can see that essentially his madness is a ‘form of good’. Euphoric ovations greet the parts of his monologue that hit the spot with his listeners.
Professor Chmielowski: Do you know how I felt when Wojtyła became pope? I felt as if Poland had won the world championship. As if our lads had beaten Brazil in the final, four-nil. The choice of Wojtyła was like a great, victorious world championship. And then when he came to Poland in 1979, it was the world championship of championships, the world cup of cups, the league of all leagues. The Pope played centre forward, on the wing and half-back. He played in every position, he was the sweeper no one could get past, and he was the goalie who never let in a goal. He never left the pitch, he never even needed a drink of water. The opposition made substitutions, team after team came onto the pitch as Wojtyła single-handedly routed the toughest squads in the world. He made a long pass to the wing from the back of the field, and was himself the winger he passed to, he raced like the wind, he was faster than Maradona, not to mention the opposition; he centred, and before the ball had flown into the penalty area he was already there leaping sky-high to head it - and his white skullcap never even shuddered. The goal net did, of course. His attacks reduced the helpless defenders to despair – faced with the dribbling of the Polish Bishop of Rome the Italian catenaccio defence was completely routed, and the Argentineans wanted to throw in the towel long before the ninety minutes were up. The Brazilians were only able to keep pace with him in the first half. The Spaniards, though first-class Catholics, suffered an infamous defeat – there’s no mercy in sport. But best of all was when John Paul II gave the free-thinking Dutch a thrashing – they usually get away with anything. And the way he never let the renegade teams out of the water – those English Anglicans scored nil, and the German first team, where at least nine of the eleven players are the sons of Lutheran pastors, relentless perfectionists, were beaten by more than ten goals. That’s right – those Germans were down seven-nil at half-time in revenge for the Reformation, and seven more by full-time for the Schism. Even so it was a low score, and the Pope played around with them just as he liked. He even let them shoot one honorary goal, he let himself be dodged on purpose, he let one Protestant get into position, and then deliberately dived towards the other side of the goal to make it look as if he was steeped in the spirit of ecumenism and reconciliation. But the score of fourteen-one speaks for itself.
Then came the great, maybe the greatest, most crucial match of all, against the Russians. Always in the white strip, for this match the Pope threw the mozzetta – his red cape – around his shoulders. Did he want to stress the importance of the event? Or contrast his Vatican red with their Bolshevik red? Did the cape improve his aerodynamics? Probably a bit of all three. So then came kick-off. And Christ, what a kick-off! First came a long-distance bombardment. Bomb after bomb, from thirty, from forty metres, from mid-field, from just about every position. And they all went in – hook shots with colossal force and implacable precision. Faced with Wojtyła’s banana kicks, David Beckham’s famous bends were like a backyard performance. And on top of that, the iron tactical consistency, every regular element of play exploited mercilessly – he even scored two goals straight off corner kicks. Every shot from the penalty area was converted into a goal. Impeccable technique. For the most beautiful goal of the match the Pope shot a backwards overhead kick. First, in defence he played out three unhurried square passes, which looked a bit like he was seeking a moment of inspiration, because the other side were still attacking hard. Yet there wasn’t any wild lunging, or any defence of Częstochowa, just constructive moves immediately begun in his own penalty area. Just like the action that sprang from under our goal, after taking the ball off the opponent straight away, though it looked like he was procrastinating. And as soon as he’d put the Soviet ranks to sleep, then came the cross pass, as Wojtyła passed to himself at full pace, and then at lightning speed he passed it back without stopping it, then he was basically in line to shoot, but, as if wanting to make the task harder for himself, he suddenly started weaving, and like a seasoned slalomer he got past three helpless Russkies, dodged them, but very nearly flew across the touchline; he was level with the penalty area, but, as I say, right over to the side with his back to their goal, and in this breakneck position he raised the ball as if it were glued to his foot, then with a gentle lob he tossed it, as if without much precision, more or less to twenty-five metres, and it looked as if he’d have big trouble receiving it there, because somehow he was facing backwards in a carefree sort of way, the ball was going upwards, so it was basically an absolute cert that even if he received it he’d have to pull back, but that was typical thinking in earthly terms, because as if defying the laws of physics, quick as a wink, just as he turned his back he flew into the air, did a somersault, and almost too fast for the eye to see, out from under his cassock, which didn’t even have time to settle, like two crimson streaks of lightning two boots specially made by the papal shoemaker Gianfranco Pittarello came sliding, and made a classic scissor movement in the air as the right one struck the ball and sent it flying into the left upper corner of the net. That was the goal that broke the Russkies psychologically.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones