Saint Pope John Paul II
Saint John Paul II was a universal shepherd – the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, his election in 1978 ushered in the first real “globally-oriented” papacy ever. His wisdom, compassion, and faith was spread around the globe through 104 apostolic adventures to 129 different countries. He broke down unprecedented barriers, stood unabashedly opposed to violence and oppression, and made a universal call to holiness that has inspired millions of faithful Catholics.
The inspiring, cheerful saint known as John Paul II was born Karol Józef Wojtyła on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, Poland, a town of about 8,000 Catholics and 2,000 jews located only 15 miles away from the future site of Auschwitz. He was the youngest of three children, born into a loving Polish family that would sadly experience immense suffering just a few years following his birth. His mother Emelia passed away before he had even received his First Communion, and by the time he was 12, he had also lost his older siblings Olga and Edmund.
His father, Karol senior, was a lieutenant in the Polish army who Karol described in writings as a “deeply religious man” whose discipline and guidance was in a way his “first seminary, a kind of domestic seminary.” Young Karol would excel in academics, play soccer regularly, and enjoy the arts of drama and poetry. He would regularly help out Fr. Kazimierz Figlewicz, his first teacher in Catholicism, at Wadowice’s main Catholic church, which was right next door to the Wojtyła’s apartment.
Karol graduated from secondary school as valedictorian and would move with his father to Kraków to attend the Jagiellonian University, studying Polish language, literature, theater and poetry. He performed in local theatrical productions, and met an important spiritual mentor, Jan Tyranowski, who was a local tailor that was in charge of youth ministry for the local church. Jan introduced the college-aged Karol to the Carmelite mysticism of St. John of the Cross, which would greatly influence Karol’s journey towards the priesthood and motivations that the church might improve the world.
Karol’s promising academic career (he learned as many as 15 languages at Jagiellonian University!) was cut short by the outbreak of World War II. Nazi Germany invaded in September of 1939 and occupying forces closed his school. The two Wojtyłas joined thousands fleeing to the east, but after learning that the Russians had invaded Poland, they returned to Kraków. In order to avoid arrest and deportation, Karol worked in a stone quarry, with night shifts at a chemical plant, all the while still attending clandestine classes to continue his studies. Karol returned home from work on February 18, 1941 to find his father had died of a heart attack. Before his 21st birthday, Karol Wojtyła was his family’s lone surviving member.
The very next year, he decided to enter the priesthood. While still working at the chemical factory, he began attending illegal seminary classes run by the Archbishop of Kraków, Cardinal Sapieha. On August 5, 1944, Karol’s journey to the priesthood was nearly curtailed by a day known as “Black Sunday”, when the Gestapo rounded up more than 8,000 men and boys in Kraków to prevent an uprising similar to what was happening in Warsaw at the time. He hid in the basement of his uncle’s house, and would soon escape to the Archbishop’s palace, where he would remain for the rest of the war. Karol recalled witnessing numerous Nazi horrors during this time, including the murder of many priests, which alongside the teachings of St. John of the Cross, helped him embrace the redemption that could be gained through suffering, and the true meaning of the priesthood.
On November 1st, 1946, the feast of All Saints Day, Karol was ordained a priest by Cardinal Sapieha. He immediately traveled to Rome to continue his doctoral studies, earning a doctorate in theology in 1948 and a doctorate in philosophy in 1953. He returned to Poland and began teaching in the Jagiellonian University. Soon after he was made assistant pastor of a parish in Niegowic. The young priest quickly became a spiritual leader and mentor for many, forming a circle of young adult friends who would go on kayaking and camping trips to celebrate Mass in the open, despite a ban on unapproved worship outside of churches by the communist regime. Karol continued to pray, write and teach ardently, impressing church leaders so much that in 1958, Pope Pius XII appointed him an auxiliary bishop of Kraków, the youngest bishop in the history of Poland.
What followed next was a rapid ascension through the priestly hierarchy, largely in part from his participation and contributions during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). In December 1963, Pope Paul VI named him archbishop of Kraków, and in 1967, he became a cardinal. As a cardinal, he made waves alongside Stefan Wyszyński, the archbishop of Warsaw, by declaring that “Christianity, not communism, was the true protector of the poor and oppressed.” He defied communist authorities by holding Masses in Kraków’s new industrial suburb, Nowa Huta, where he wanted to build a church. Despite their best attempts, nothing the communists could do seemed to slow Karol down, and he consecrated Nowa Huta’s Ark Church in 1977. The authorities forced the upstart cardinal archbishop to develop a public speaking style that would ultimately work against them – by attempting to deny Wojtyła access to the media, he in turn traveled far and wide to reach the people. This developed the future pope’s ability to skillfully communicate with large crowds, of which he would soon be seeing.
In August 1978, a papal conclave was held to elect the successor of Pope Paul VI. Albino Luciani, an Italian Cardinal who was the first pope to have been born in the 20th century, was elected and took the name Pope John Paul I, only to pass away 33 days later. At the second conclave of 1978, it was Karol Wojtyła that the white smoke heralded, emerging as Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978. He was the first pope ever from a Slavic country. At his installation Mass on October 22, 1978, he repeated the phrase “Be not afraid!”, which would become a recurring theme for him, along with his Episcopal motto, taken from the profound teachings of St. Louis de Montfort: “Totus Tuus – I am completely yours.”
In his first year alone as Pope, John Paul II went on four different trips abroad – bouncing around the world between Mexico, Poland, Ireland, Turkey and the United States. At each stop, large crowds gathered to hear him preach and give counsel to leaders and laity alike, with his impassioned speeches calling upon every person to care for the poor and respect the dignity of every human person. He would become the most widely-traveled pope ever during his nearly 27-year pontificate (the third-longest reign in history), but his presence on the world stage never took precedence over his pastoral duties, writing 14 Encyclicals, 15 Apostolic Exhortations, 11 Apostolic Constitutions and 45 Apostolic Letters, alongside five books during his time as pope. He also emphasized the universal call to holiness by beatifying 1,338 people and canonizing 482 saints, which was more than all 263 previous popes combined. He also established World Youth Day, and the World Meeting of Families, both born from his concern and focus on marriage and the family.
On May 13, 1981, the feast day of Our Lady of Fátima, the world was shocked by an attempted assassination on Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s square by a 23-year old Turkish man, Mehmet Ali Agca. Two years later, the world was shocked again by JPII, having recovered from his abdomen wound, made a personal visit to his attacker in prison to forgive him. The pope credited the Virgin of Fátima for guiding the bullet from his would-be assassin away from his vital organs. John Paul II continued with his missionary activities, holding meetings with government officials, religious leaders from other faiths, and countless other important individuals to impress on them the need for peace, the abolishing of materialism, and the beauty of interfaith initiatives.
In 1986, despite the scorn of many, Pope John Paul II invited the leaders of all major religions to Assisi, Italy for a universal prayer service for world peace. By the mid 90’s, he had spent a considerable amount of time orchestrating acts of interfaith reconciliation – many involving general apologies for the sins committed by Catholics against others throughout history, including those during the Crusades, against indigenous peoples, non-Catholic christians, Muslims, Jews, and more. He would go on to become the first pope to ever enter a synagogue, where he embraced the chief rabbi at the Great Synagogue of Rome, as well as the first pope to enter a mosque, entering the Great Mosque of Damascus to pray at the shrine of St. John the Baptist in the company of the Muslim clerics.
As the new millennium was ushered in, Pope John Paul II continued to change the world through his tireless ministry. His televised audiences captivated millions, his pastoral efforts established numerous dioceses, and he continued to travel even as the once-robust pope became slowed by Parkinson disease and a series of operations. When his aides would urge him to slow down, he would respond, “Si crollo, crollo” (“If I collapse, I collapse”). After 2003, he appeared in public only when seated, and by Easter 2005, he was unable to speak to the millions of pilgrims he blessed from his apartment window, due to a tracheotomy.
Hundreds of thousands of young people kept vigil beneath the window of the papal apartment in April of 2005, as Pope John Paul II breathed his last. He died on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 5, 2005 at 9:37 pm. His last audible words were “Let me go to my Father’s house.”
More than three million pilgrims traveled to Rome to pay their respects to JPII, whose witness of faith ignited the missionary hearts inside countless Catholics around the world. On April 28, 2005, a mere 23 days after John Paul’s passing, Pope Benedict XVI declared that the normal five-year waiting period needed before beginning causes of beatification and canonization would be waived for John Paul II, and on May 1, 2011, Pope John Paul II was beatified by Benedict, and finally canonized as Saint John Paul II on April 27, 2014.
Saint John Paul II has a legacy unlike nearly any pope in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. His efforts towards Catholic interfaith relationships, understanding of political participation, advocacy of national and religious freedom, and stance on traditional church positions made an impact that will resonate for many generations to come. He was an endearing and prayerful pope, and is now in heaven among the communion of saints, beckoning to all Catholics young and old, to “be not afraid” and join him.