Read The Life and Legacy of Pope John Paul II Online

Authors: Wyatt North

Tags: #Biographies & Memoirs, #Leaders & Notable People, #Religious, #Christian Books & Bibles, #Catholicism, #Popes & the Vatican, #Religion & Spirituality

The Life and Legacy of Pope John Paul II


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Scripture texts in this work are taken from the 
New American Bible, revised edition
© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.








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On July 5, Pope Francis approved John Paul for sainthood, saying that Pope John XXIII and John Paul II will be canonized together. The date has not yet been established, although December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception has been suggested. Irrespective of the details, John Paul’s canonization appears imminent.


From Poland, John Paul’s longtime private secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, rejoiced at the news. “I thank God that I will live to see the elevation to sainthood the person who I served with love to the last beating of his heart,” he stated. Abraham Foxman, as director of the Jewish organization the Anti-Defamation League, received four audiences with Pope John Paul. He spoke for John Paul’s numerous supporters when he said, “For many of us Pope John Paul is already a saint, this just formalizes it.”


John Paul’s pontificate lasted nearly twenty-seven years, one of the longest in papal history. During that time he had an unprecedented amount of contact with the public, including Catholics, non-Catholics, and foreign leaders. He made 104 pastoral visits outside Italy, and 146 within. The Vatican estimates that more than 17.6 million pilgrims participated in his regular Wednesday general audiences alone. He made 38 official visits and met with government leaders on 984 different occasions.

The Polish Pope


Nineteen seventy-eight was called the year of three popes. When Cardinal Albino Luciani of Venice was elected to succeed Pope Paul VI, he was applauded for lovingly assuming the name of his two predecessors. That early promise quickly evaporated when the papacy of John Paul I tragically lasted a mere thirty-three days. In that sad context, it was rumored that the College of Cardinals would now seek someone young and vigorous.


When he was elected pope at the age of fifty-eight, Karol Wojtila became the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and the first Slavic pope in history. His election sent a strong message to Communist dictators and affirmed the staunchly Catholic character of Poland.


The papacy of this pope would last an almost unheard-of twenty-seven years. They would be years filled with energy, revitalizing initiatives, and ultimately—controversy.

Formative Years


Karol Jozef Wojtila was born May 18, 1920, to Karol and Emilia Wojtila. He would be known to family and friends by the nickname, “Lolek.” His elder brother Edmund (known as “Mundek”) had been born a distant fourteen years earlier, while an older sister, Olga, had lived only a few brief weeks. His father was a noncommissioned officer in the fledgling Polish army, working in the quartermaster store. Karol, Sr. had previously served in the Austro-Hungarian army, and the Jozef in his son’s name was probably in honor of the Emperor Franz Jozef, or alternatively, the Polish leader Jozef Pilsudsky. Karol Jozef was baptized by a military chaplain at the parish church of St. Mary’s.


The town of Wadowice, where the Wojtila family lived, was nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. It was only thirty miles from the cultured city of Krakow, which could be reached by train. Not far was the town of Oswiecim, which in only a few short years would become infamous under its German name, Auschwitz. During Karol’s formative years, Wadowice held as many as 10,000 residents. Horse-drawn conveyances were the rule, while cars were still the exception. Nevertheless, as the county seat, Wadowice boasted government administrative offices, as well as a teacher’s college and a few theaters, including a movie theater. It was also the site of the army garrison where Karol, Sr. served and which was a large employer in the area.


Years later, Pope John Paul observed that he had already lost all the people he loved by the time he was twenty. The first to be lost was his mother. Emilia had suffered from heart and kidney problems since childhood. She became increasingly ill and died in 1929 at the age of forty-five, when Karol was not yet nine. This may be the reason that in 1927 Karol, Sr. took early retirement from the military with the rank of captain. (He continued to be known to everyone in town as “Captain.”) With the death of Emilia, the rearing of their young son fell entirely to the retired military man. The older Edmund was no longer living at home at the time. Karol’s friend, Jerzy Kluger, later recalled how he and Karol played in the Wojtila apartment a good bit after Emilia’s death, because the sensitive Karol did not want his father to be alone in his grief. Tragedy struck again when a mere three years after the death of Emilia, Edmund succumbed to scarlet fever. By then a doctor and living in Bielsko, Edmund had been caring for hospital patients during an outbreak of the disease when he contracted it himself and died within days. Edmund was only twenty-six years old.


Karol attended the public high school for boys. The curriculum included Latin and Greek. From his father he also learned German. Thus began his development as a polyglot. Karol was active in a number of extra-curricular activities, including the school’s Anti-Aircraft and Gas Weapons Defense League, which was an unfortunate product of the politically troubled 1930s. An outstanding athlete, he excelled as a soccer goalkeeper. Known later as the pope who skied, in his youth he also hiked, swam in the river, and played hockey on frozen ponds. Even as a cardinal, he went kayaking. His deepest passion, however, was acting in youth theater as he came to realize the power of both the written and the spoken word. Upon graduation from high school, he was valedictorian of his class. People who knew him in his youth describe Karol as having been sweet and loving, an attribute they attest he retained throughout his life.


Poland at the time was newly resurgent, having only regained its independence from Austria-Hungary in 1918. Polish nationalism was in the air. Karol’s father was strict, but a man of sterling character and integrity, an autodidact who taught his son Polish national pride and an appreciation for Polish literature and the arts. The elder Wojtila would regale Karol and his friend Jerzy with mesmerizing stories about Polish history and its important figures.


When the time came, Karol moved to nearby Krakow with his father to attend Jagiellonian University. They shared a rather dingy basement apartment in a home belonging to the deceased Emilia’s two sisters. Jagiellonian University was one of the earliest universities to be established in Europe, with a venerable history dating to 1364. Nicolaus Copernicus was among the important intellects to emerge from there. Karol could not help but feel the weightiness and prestige of this academic environment. In accordance with his growing enthusiasm for the significance of words, he majored in Polish language and literature and began also to study Russian and French. In addition to a rigorous course of study, he continued his theatrical involvement, wrote poetry, and joined various student organizations.

Early Religious Life


The Wojtila’s, like many Poles, were devoutly religious. A font of holy water stood outside the apartment to guard their comings and goings. The living room held a well-used prie-dieux with an image of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa before it. Karol often saw his father late at night praying intently before it, and the boy, too, punctuated his day with frequent prayer. Karol went to mass daily before school and served as an altar boy at the church of St. Mary’s. During her lifetime, his mother read to him from the New Testament after school. His father took him to a nearby Carmelite monastery, where the monks gave him a scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel that he wore throughout his life. (As pope, John Paul would canonize that monastery’s best-known monk, Rafal Kalinowsky.) The pilgrimage site of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska (today a UNESCO World Heritage Site) was also nearby, with its series of chapels simulating the distinct paths of Jesus and Mary. Father and son were accustomed to attending the annual passion play there.

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