Revered by many as the most prominent man of the 20th century, Pope John Paul II was loved and respected by many millions of people. Active in the Church and world affairs, he was also the first non-Italian Pope in over 450 years, and the first Polish Pope in the history of the Papacy.
Born on May 18, 1920, in the town of Wadowice, near Krakow, Pope John Paul entered the world as Karol Józef Wojtyła, one of three children born to Emilia Kaczorowska and Karol Wojtyła. His older brother, Edmund, was 14 years his senior, but as his sister, Olga, died in infancy, Karol grew very close to his only remaining sibling. Karol’s mother died in 1929, on April 13th, when the boy was only 8 years old.
Karol turned to athletics as a method of keeping his mind and body entertained, and developed kinship with the thriving, vibrant community of Jews in his hometown. Often times, school games would be organized between Catholic and Jewish children. Karol was the first to volunteer to play against his own team if the Jewish players needed an additional player.
In 1938 Karol and his father moved to Krakow, where the young man was enrolled at Jagiellonian University, with studies in various languages and philology. He also volunteered to work in the library, and while the Academic Legion required participation in military training, Karol strictly refused to fire a weapon. Showing his creative side, Karol worked as a playwright and was active in a number of theatrical troupes. Not only was he a talented writer and performer, but he was gifted in languages, which he employed regularly while in Papal office. Highly adept, he spoke Italian, French, German, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Ukrainian, Russian, Croatian, Esperanto, Ancient Greek, Latin in addition to his native Polish.
Tragically in 1938 Karol lost his brother Edmund, a physician, to scarlet fever. Then In 1939, Karol’s university was forced to close due to the Nazi occupation. To avoid being deported to Germany, the young man worked in a quarry and the Solvay chemical factory from 1940- 1944. In 1941 his father, a non-commissioned officer, died, leaving Karol without immediate family for support.
Karol received his calling to serve the Lord in 1942, and embarked in clandestine seminary courses run by the archbishop of Krakow. After the Second World War ended, the seminary was allowed to re-open and Karol formally enrolled. His university also reopened, and he undertook studies in theology there. On November 1st, 1946, Karol took a step forward and was ordained as a priest by the Archbishop Sapieha.
Not long after, he was relocated to Rome and continued to study and work under the guidance of Garrigou-Lagrange, a French Dominican. His doctorate in theology was completed in 1948, and during breaks or vacations, Karol practiced his ministry among other Polish immigrants in Belgium, Holland, and France. Eventually, he returned to Krakow as vicar and chaplain, then again took up studies in philosophy and theology in 1951.
1958 saw him appointed as titular bishop, and in 1964, he was formally inducted as archbishop of Krakow. Pope Paul IV, who anointed him as archbishop, would also make him a Cardinal in 1967, eventually promoted to por illa vice to the order of priests. Karol, now Cardinal Wojtyla, took part in Vatican Council II, where he contributed to the drafting of the Constitution Gaudium et spes, alongside engaging fully in the Synod of Bishops.
It was on October 16, 1978, that the Cardinals elected him Pope, and he took the name of John Paul II. This election made him the 263rd successor to the Apostle Peter, who founded the Papacy. John Paul II would enjoy the second longest pontificate, or time in Papal office, in the history of the Church.
On May 13th, 1981, a foiled assignation attempt left Pope John Paul II critically wounded, with two bullets lodged in his lower intestine, while bystanders were also hit. After five grueling hours of emergency surgery and many blood transfusions, the Pope survived and even forgave his attacker, who had been apprehended by security and help from those gathered.
Pope John Paul II has gained the moniker “pilgrim pope” for all the traveling outside the Vatican that he had done, and this title was taken from Pope Paul VI, who traveled only 9 times outside the country in his 15 year reign, as opposed to John Paul II’s 129 trips logging more than 725,000 miles. Many of his trips were to countries that previous Pope’s had never visited before.
Pope John Paul II was a man of great charity, learning, wisdom, and faith. His love for his fellow human was evident and unbounded by any external indicators. He prolifically wrote and left behind a large body of literature in his documents and five books.
Pope John Paul II is remembered for his influential presence, opinions, morality, and significantly improving relations with other religions, such as Judaism and Islam. He is also often credited as being responsible for bringing about the fall of communism in his native Poland and eventually all of Europe.
He entered into life eternal on April 2nd, 2005, and the usual five year waiting period from canonization was waived for him, a clear indication that he touched the lives of so many, he was already considered a saint.