Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II

Karol Józef Wojtyła (Voy-TEE-wah) was born on May 18, 1920, to Emilia Kaczorowska and Karol Wojtyła, a lieutenant in the Polish army. The couple had two other children years earlier: a daughter, who died in infancy, and Edmund, who became a medical doctor.

When Karol Józef was born, the family lived in Wadowice, Poland, in a flat owned by a Jewish family, directly across from St. Mary’s church, where Karol was baptized.

His father retired from the army in 1927. Karol’s mother died in 1929. Edmund died three years later in Kraków. Karol and his father would live together until the latter’s death in Kraków at the start of the German occupation, while Karol was still a teenager.

From 1939 to 1945, Wojtyła eked out an education. Before the Gestapo shut down the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, he had begun studies in Polish philology. Professors who escaped deportation opened an underground university, which Wojtyła attended. To support himself, he worked in a rock quarry and later in a chemical plant, surrounding himself with books and teaching himself languages.

From his father and parish priests in Wadowice, Wojtyła had learned the importance of prayer. In occupied Kraków, prayer was his lifeline to hope. There young Wojtyła met Jan Tyranowski, a tailor, mystic, and spiritual director.

Tyranowski created what he called a “living Rosary”: a group of 15 young men who received from him spiritual instruction and who were commissioned to pass it on to other young people. From Tyranowski, Wojtyła learned contemplative prayer, especially the spirituality of St. John of the Cross.

After his father’s death in February 1941, Wojtyła joined Archbishop Sapieha’s underground seminary and was ordained by him in November 1946. Sent to Rome, Wojtyła earned the first of two doctoral degrees in theology. Upon his return, Fr. Wojtyła had to devise ways to disguise his ministry.

Throughout the 1950s he published plays, poems, and articles under an alias; chaperoned college students on hiking and kayaking trips to teach the faith without observation; and counseled engaged couples on marital sexuality.

He taught at two universities, as a professor of philosophy at the Jagiellonian, and of social ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin. In 1958 Pius XII named Wojtyła auxiliary bishop of Kraków, and in 1963 Paul VI appointed him that city’s archbishop.

The Second Vatican Council (1962–65) brought the young archbishop to Rome, into the company of bishops from everywhere. Wojtyła spoke frequently in assemblies large and small, helped draft documents such as the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World), and published poetry and articles for the people back home describing what the council meant for the church.

John Paul II statue
John Paul II statue

Karol Wojtyła was made a cardinal in 1967 and remained archbishop of Kraków for 15 years. He led a synod for the archdiocese, which met 119 times over seven years.

He strengthened the seminary and the Jagiellonian theology faculty, inaugurated marriage preparation programs and family ministries, encouraged youth movements, organized parish-based charitable committees, and made lengthy visitations to his parishes. He continued teaching and publishing without letup.

When Paul VI died in August 1978, Cardinal Wojtyła participated in the conclave that elected Albino Luciani, whose double name John Paul signaled his wish to continue the work of popes John XXIII and Paul VI. Wojtyła returned to Kraków.

But the new pope died a month later. Wojtyła departed again for Rome, fearing that he might remain there. He did eventually return, but not as archbishop. On October 16, 1978, Cardinal Wojtyła was elected the 264th successor of Peter and the first Polish pope ever.

Like Luciani, he took the double name of John Paul. Immediately, the whirlwind of activities that characterized his papacy began: visits to parishes in Rome, travels outside the Vatican, meetings, writings, and long hours prostrate in prayer.

Within three months, his marathon series of international journeys began with a pastoral visit to Mexico. In June 1979, much to the dismay of the communist government, he made the first of several visits to Poland.

The Soviet authorities realized that this pope was dangerous. On May 13, 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca, hired by the Bulgarian secret police at the behest of the Soviet KGB, shot John Paul as he rode through St. Peter’s Square. The wound was serious but not fatal.

Though recovery was slow and fraught with complications, the pope resumed his travels as soon as he could, even visiting Poland again in 1983. The most widely traveled pope in history, John Paul II visited a total of 129 countries, plus 145 trips within Italy, and visits to 317 of the 328 parishes in the diocese of Rome.

John Paul intended his papacy to address two major goals. First, he wished to implement Vatican II, a council full of hope for the church’s future. He promulgated in 1983 the revised Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church, and in 1990 the revised Code for the Eastern Churches, both built on council teachings. To restore clarity to church teaching, he commissioned the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He delivered hundreds of catechetical addresses.

In 14 papal encyclicals, 15 apostolic exhortations, 45 “apostolic letters,” and numerous other writings, he taught on morality, life issues, the dignity of work, the dignity of women, the role of the family, the nature of the Trinity, and the meaning of the Creed. To provide models of the holiness called for in Vatican II, John Paul canonized 1,342 saints, more than the combined total of persons canonized since the 16th century.

A second goal was to prepare the church for the advent of the third millennium, an era John Paul saw as a springtime of hope. To that end, he announced a “new evangelization” of the world. His biennial World Youth Days attracted millions of young people from the world over. His first encyclical, published in 1979, had mentioned this jubilee as the beginning of a “new Advent” of the Son of God in human history.

A pope is a political, as well as a religious, leader. He is widely credited with a major role in the 1989 collapse of European communism. Perseverance, back-door negotiations, and providential coincidences resulted in the creation of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the state of Israel in 1993.

During John Paul’s pontificate, 83 countries established diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Through dogged effort, his ambassadors at the United Nations were able to forestall activist efforts to reshape marriage and promote abortion on demand at the 1994 Cairo and 1995 Beijing women’s conferences.

But some problems proved insurmountable. The number of priests and seminarians continued to decline during John Paul’s papacy. Radical feminists persisted in challenging the church’s refusal to ordain women to the priesthood. Ecumenical dialogue with most Orthodox churches stalled.

Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, excommunicated in 1988 for ordaining bishops without authorization, died unreconciled despite efforts to reinstate him. The pope was criticized for appointing weak bishops and for failing to reform religious orders.

John Paul’s decline in health appeared to begin after the 1981 assassination attempt. Intestinal disorders and a series of falls in the early 1990s led to repeated hospitalizations. In 1994 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which gradually sapped his physical strength. On April 2, 2005, he died of complications from Parkinson’s. Karol Wojtyła’s reign as John Paul II lasted 26 years and 5 months, the third-longest papal tenure up to that time.