This Was the Man Karol Wojtyla
St John Paul II was a modern-day apostle and the world’s conscience. This is the life of the man born Karol Wojtyła on May 18, 1920.
Pope John Paul II, whose centenary of birth we mark on May 18, was a voice of conscience for the world and a modern-day apostle for his Church.
To both roles he brought a philosopher’s intellect, a pilgrim’s spiritual intensity and an actor’s flair for the dramatic. That combination made him one of the most forceful moral leaders of the modern age.
As head of the Church for more than 26 years, he held a hard line on doctrinal issues and drew sharp limits on dissent.
The first non-Italian pope in 455 years, Pope John Paul became a spiritual protagonist in two global transitions: the fall of European communism, which began in his native Poland in 1989, and the passage to the third millennium of Christianity.
For many years he was a tireless evangeliser at home and abroad, but towards the end his frailty left him unable to murmur a blessing. After St John Paul died on April 2, 2005, at age the age of 84, an estimated 4 million people paid their respects over several days.
His funeral six days later was broadcast around the world and drew more than a million people, including kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers, and representatives of many faiths. Seeming to respond to the “Santo subito!” (“Sainthood now!”) banners that were held aloft during his funeral in St Peter’s Square, his successors—Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis—respectively beatified and canonised him, after waiving the normal five-year waiting period for the introduction of his sainthood cause.
A Series of Tragedies
Karol Jozef Wojtyła was born the youngest of three children on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, a small town near Krakow, in southern Poland.
His older sister died before Karol was born. His mother, Emilia, died from a heart attack and kidney failure when he was nine.
When he was 12, his only brother, Edmund, died. And he lost his father, Karol Sr, at age 20 in 1941. “At 20, I had already lost all the people I loved,” St John Paul later recalled. In 1938 her and his father had move to Krakow, where the young man enrolled in the Jagiellonian University.
There he became exposed to the theatre, and let his talent for language blossom. Eventually he spoke 12 languages: his native Polish, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, German, Ukrainian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovak and the international language Esperanto.
But his studies were cut short by the German occupation in 1939. The university was closed, and Karol was required to work. From 1940-44 he worked as a messenger, in a limestone quarry and in a chemical factory, all to avoid deportation to forced-labour camps in Germany.
Jewish authorities have said that Wojtyła also helped protect many Polish Jews from the Nazis.
The Path to Vocation
In 1940 Karol was introduced to Carmelite mysticism and the Living Rosary youth groups. This exposure to spirituality, his father’s death, and a series of accidents led Karol to think about becoming a priest.
An accomplished actor in Krakow’s underground theatre during the war, Wojtyła changed paths. He tried to enter the Carmelite monastery but was turned away with the advice: “You are destined for greater things.”
In October 1942, he knocked on the door of the Bishop’s Palace in Krakow and asked to study for the priesthood.
Archbishop Stefan Sapieha approved, and Karol entered his clandestine seminary in the palace. When a German lorry hit Karol in 1944, he suffered severe concussion and a shoulder injury.
He interpreted his survival as a sign that he was right to follow the path of a priestly vocation. He was ordained on All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1946, by now Cardinal Sapieha.
Fr Wojtyła was sent to do theological and philosophical studies in Rome, eventually earning a doctorate with a thesis on “The Doctrine of Faith in St John of the Cross”.
According to Wojtyła’s schoolmate, the future Austrian Cardinal Alfons Stickler, the young Polish priest in 1947 visited Padre Pio.
The controversial mystic heard his confession and told him that one day he would ascend to “the highest post in the Church”.
Fr Wojtyła believed that the prophecy was fulfilled when he became a cardinal.
A Priest in Krakow
Fr Wojtyła returned to Poland for parish work in 1948.
His first assignment was in the village of Niegowic, 24km from Krakow, at the church of the Assumption. His first action on arriving there was to kneel and kiss the ground, a gesture he had picked up from the patron saint of priests, St John Vianney. It later became a trademark of his papacy to kiss the ground of countries he visited.
Transferred to Krakow, he taught at universities, and set up a popular youth group which combined prayer, spirituality, theology and charity with adventurous outdoor camps. This was a risky undertaking for a priest in communist Poland, so Fr Wojtyła told is charges to call him “Wujek”, meaning “Uncle”, to avoid detection. It was a nickname that became popular and stuck.
During that time he also wrote a column for a Catholic newspaper in Krakow. When named auxiliary bishop of Krakow in 1958 — Fr Wojtyła learnt about it while he was on a kayaking holiday — he was Poland’s youngest bishop.
He became the archbishop of Krakow in 1964. By then Bishop Wojtyła had already come to the attention of the universal Church. In 1962 he was delegated to the Second Vatican Council. There he contributed to two of its most significant documents, the Decree on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis humanae) and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes).
Pope Paul VI made Archbishop Wojytla a cardinal in 1967.
The non-Italian pope
Though increasingly respected in Rome, Cardinal Wojtyła was a virtual unknown when he was elected pope on October 16, 1978. (Click here for an article on how he was elected.)
In St Peter’s Square that night, the first non-Italian pope in 455 years set out his papal style in a heartfelt talk—delivered in fluent Italian, interrupted by loud cheers from the crowd.
As pastor of the universal Church, he jetted around the world, taking his message to 129 countries in 104 trips outside Italy. These included a 1988 visit to Botswana, Swaziland (now Eswatini), Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, during which he had to make an unscheduled stop in Johannesburg.
South Africa had been excluded from the schedule because Pope John Paul abhorred apartheid. He made his only visit to South Africa in October 1995, an overnight stop with a single public Mass in Johannesburg.
It remains the only papal visit to South Africa.
The great evangeliser
Whether at home or on the road, Pope John Paul aimed to be the Church’s most active evangeliser, trying to open every corner of human society to Christian values.
He laid out his vision of the Church’s future and called for a “new sense of mission’’ to bring Gospel values into every area of social and economic life with a landmark document, the apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte (“At the Beginning of the New Millennium’’).
His social justice encyclicals also made a huge impact, addressing the moral dimensions of human labour, the widening gap between rich and poor and the shortcomings of the free-market system. At the pope’s request, the Vatican published an exhaustive compendium of social teachings in 2004.
Over the years, public reaction to the pope’s message and his decisions was mixed.
He was hailed as a daring social critic, chided as the “last socialist”, cheered by millions and caricatured as an inquisitor.
Pope John Paul never paid much attention to his popularity ratings. Within the Church, the pope was just as vigorous and no less controversial. He disciplined dissenting theologians, excommunicated self-styled “traditionalists”, and upheld Church teaching against artificial birth control.
At the same time, he pushed Catholic social teaching into relatively new areas such as bioethics, international economics, racism and ecology.
He led the Church through soulsearching events during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, fulfilling a dream of his pontificate.
His pilgrimage to the Holy Land that year took him to the roots of the faith and dramatically illustrated the Church’s improved relations with Jews.
He also presided over an unprecedented public apology for the sins of Christians during darker chapters of Church history, such as the Inquisition and the Crusades.
The pope approved a universal catechism as one remedy for doctrinal ambiguity. He also pushed Church positions further into the public forum.
In the 1990s, he urged the world’s bishops to step up their fight against abortion and euthanasia, saying the practices amounted to a modern-day “slaughter of the innocents”.
His sharpened critique of these and other “anti-family” policies helped make him Time magazine’s choice for Man of the Year in 1994.
The pope was a cautious ecumenist, insisting that real differences between religions and churches not be covered up. Yet he made several dramatic gestures. These included launching a CatholicOrthodox theological dialogue in 1979; visiting a Rome synagogue in 1986; hosting world religious leaders at a “prayer summit” for peace in Assisi in 1986.
Travelling to Damascus, Syria, in 2001, he became the first pontiff in history to visit a mosque.
To his own flock, he brought continual reminders that prayer and the sacraments were crucial to being a good Christian.
He held up Mary as a model of holiness for the whole Church, updated the rosary with five new “Mysteries of Light”, and named more than 450 new saints—more than all his predecessors combined. St John Paul lived a deep spiritual life—something that was not easily translated by the media.
Yet in earlier years, this pope seemed made for modern media, and his pontificate has been captured in some lasting images, like huddling in a prison-cell conversation with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, who shot the pope in St Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima.
St John Paul credited Our Lady of Fatima for his survival, and later placed the bullet that nearly killed him into the crown of the Portuguese shrine’s statue of Our Lady.
That bullet put his papacy on hold for several months.
Assailant Mehmet Ali Agca served 19 years in an Italian prison before being sent back to Turkey.
The pope was soon back on the road, eventually logging more than a million kilometres. His 14 visits to Africa were part of a successful strategy of Church expansion there; in Latin America he aimed to curb political activism by clergy and the inroads made by religious sects. In his later years, the pope moved with difficulty, tired easily and was less expressive, all symptoms of the nervous system disorder of Parkinson’s disease.
By the time he celebrated his 25th anniversary in October 2003, aides had to wheel him in on a chair and read his speeches for him.
Yet he pushed himself to the limits of his physical capabilities, convinced that such suffering was itself a form of spiritual leadership. With the third-longest pontificate in Church history, St John Paul died at the age of 84 on the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday.
Divine Mercy Sunday had special significance for the pope, who made it a Church-wide feast day to be celebrated a week after Easter.
Pope Benedict beatified him on Divine Mercy Sunday, May 1, 2011, and Pope Francis canonised him on the same feast day, April 27, 2014.