Karol Jozef Wojtyla was born in Wadowice, Poland on May 18, 1920 during the sixth year of the reign of Pope Benedict XV, 258th Pontiff. Wadowice, in southern Poland, is 20 plus miles southwest of Krakow and 20 miles from the Czech border. He was born in a three room flat at 7 Church St. a block away from the Parish Church of Our Lady on the square where he is baptized on June 20. His father, Karol Sr., a retired officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, was a Lieutenant in the Polish Army. Karol's mother Emelia Kaczorowska Wojtyla, a school teacher of Lithuanian descent, provided an earthly nurturing for the future Pope, but at the age of nine would be taken from him when she died at the age of 45 during childbirth. Less than a year later Karol received his First Holy Communion at the Parish of Our Lady and began serving as an Altar Boy. He had hoped his mother would have lived to see this but more sorrow came into his life two years later when his brother Edmond, 15 years older, died of Scarlet Fever contracted while he was studying as a Medical School intern.
At the age of eleven Karol entered the Boys High School in Wadowice where he excelled as a talented student and athlete, something he exhibited well into his years as Pope. One of his teachers was quoted several years ago as saying, "He was the nearest to genius that I ever had." He graduated from High School in 1936 and set his sights on pursuing a career in drama and acting, since his teachers had encouraged this. He never gave up this goal, already becoming the only Supreme Pontiff to ever act and write several screen plays, even having them produced. At seventeen, shortly after moving with his father to Krakow, he was confirmed in Krakow on May 3, 1937. He was to live in Krakow for the next forty years. They had moved to this major Polish city so Karol could enroll in the department of philosophy at Jagiellonian University, the second oldest university in central Europe and the same institution where Copernicus studied. While there he also followed his dream of acting by joining the "Rhapsodic Theater."
But the tranquility of college life would be interrupted two years later in September, six months after Pope Pius XII had been proclaimed the 260th successor of Peter, when the Nazis invaded Poland. The university was closed and Karol rounded up with other students and sent to a rock quarry. He was later transferred to a chemical plant where he was put to work as a manual laborer. But, as this future Pope, realized, when adversity strikes, turn to God and take advantage of the situation. This he did. While reflecting on the evils of totalitarianism, he fell back on his Faith as well as writing plays which are still being published and produced today. One day in 1940 he was hit by a trolley in downtown Krakow and was laid up in the hospital. There God planted the seeds of the priesthood in this somewhat confused Pole, recuperating from bruises and broken bones. But Karol was not ready yet to fully commit and the urge to be an actor still burned brighter. Therefore he returned to the world and the dark, seemingly hopeless times of the Polish people in Krakow as the foreboding shadow of Nazi occupation followed their every step. His steps eventually took him in the path of a Nazi truck, striking him down and once again he was laid up in the hospital. Once again God touched his heart, for while recovering he began reading "Dark Night of the Soul" by Saint John of the Cross whose feast we celebrated this past Tuesday. A vocation was forming but young Karol would go through more dark nights of his own soul for a year later his father died of a heart attack in February, 1941 leaving him alone in a war-torn country.
He turned his attention to helping others, becoming active in the underground movement with other members of the Christian Resistance (UNIA) in helping protect Jewish families. Under the guidance of the prayer group leader Jan Tyranowski, a vocation to the priesthood was fostered in Karol thanks to Tyranowski who the Holy Father would refer to as "a real master of the spiritual life." In 1942 he entered the underground seminary in Krakow that was organized by Archbishop Adam Stefan Sapieha, who had been recruiting Karol for quite some time. Earlier, when Karol informed the archbishop that he wanted to be an actor first, Archbishop Sapieha had said: "What a pity. We could use a man like that in the Church." As it would turn out, Karol would lead the Church during her most difficult times. As the war waned on, Karol and his fellow seminarians were able to just narrowly elude the Nazis and the Gestapo. Because of his participation with the underground he had been placed on the Nazi blacklist and became a hunted man. They all hid at Archbishop Sapieha's palace until the war was over in 1945.
When the war was finally over Karol was ordained to the priesthood by the archbishop on the Solemnity of All Saints in the 8th year of the reign of Pius XII. Karol was sent to Rome to study advanced Theology at the Angelicum and there he developed his long-standing interest in Christian mysticism, doing a doctoral dissertation on St. John of the Cross who had so inspired his vocation. In 1948 Father Karol returned to Poland where he was assigned to parish work as a deacon in Niegowic and then at St. Florian's where, as pastor, he became involved in youth work, a special interest and bond he would always have and which ultimately led to his establishing the highly successful World Youth Days as Pope in 1984.
In 1954 he received his second Doctorate, this time in Philosophy, centered on the work of Max Scheler, an early German proponent of phenomenology. With degree in hand his archbishop assigned him to teach part time at the Catholic University of Lublin behind the iron curtain in Poland which had now come under communist control as part of the fall-out of World War II in which the Soviets' spoils included this highly Catholic country. Despite the KGB threat, Father Karol was promoted to Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Lublin. On September 8, 1958, on recommendation from Archbishop Sapieha, Pius XII named him the youngest bishop in Poland at only 38. He was ordained and installed as Auxiliary Bishop of Krakow. He was notified of the appointment while on a backpacking and canoeing trip with some youth from the university; the same university where a year later he was named to the Polish Academy of Sciences in recognition of his work in philosophy. He truly had become a major force in the intellectual life of his beloved country.
Because of his intellectual acumen and esteemed interest in the Church, he became an active participant of the Second Vatican Council called by Pope John XXIII. Bishop Wojtyla makes a tremendous contribution in the Declaration on Religious Freedom, writing most of Dignitatis Humanae. It proved the false humanistic tendencies of Marx and Lenin and modernism in the west. During the second session of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI elevated Bishop Wojtyla to Archbishop of the See of Krakow, succeeding his mentor Archbishop Sapieha on January 13, 1964. During these sessions of the Council Archbishop Wojtyla contributed greatly to two of the major conciliar documents Lumen Gentium and Gaudiem et Spes as well as others in emphasizing his own declaration on human dignity and which would have far-reaching effects on human rights and for the persecuted Church in communist countries, especially in his own beloved homeland.
During Paul VI's Consistory of June 26, 1967 he was elevated to the College of Cardinals and received the titular church of San Cesario in Palatio. In September that year the communist government refused Poland's primate Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski or Warsaw permission to attend the Synod of Bishops in Rome by not issuing him a passport. In solidarity, Cardinal Wojtyla stayed home as well but did attend two years later the first Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod in October of 1969. During his time as shepherd of Krakow, he was instrumental in diplomacy with the communist Polish government in allowing worship to continue in Poland. He also had been named Vice President of the Polish Bishops' Conference. Three years later he took part in the second General Assembly of the Synod and was elected to the Council of the Secretary General of the Synod. He also published his first book "Foundations of Renewal" which reflected his efforts to educate the people of his archdiocese on Vatican II. On May 8, 1972 he opened the archdiocesan synod of Krakow. It would not be closed until he returned as Pope in 1979.
On August 6, 1978 Paul VI was called home after a 15 year pontificate. Cardinal Wojtyla had been on a camping trip with a youth group when he heard the news and had to interrupt his excursion to go to Rome for his first Conclave. There, with his fellow cardinals, he elected the Venetian Patriarch Cardinal Albino Luciani who took the name Pope John Paul I in deference to his two predecessors. After he was installed on August 25, 1978 Cardinal Wojtyla returned to Poland and resumed his sojourn with the youth. Upon the unexpected death of John Paul I on September 28th, Cardinal Wojtyla rejoined 110 other members of the College of Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel to elect another Pope. John Paul I, whose reign lasted on 33 days, was the first Pope to choose a double name. Known as the "smiling Pope", John Paul I had declined to have a coronation ceremony. On October 16th White Smoke curled up over the Vatican: Cardinal Wojtyla would not return to Poland as the Archbishop of Krakow but as Pope for he was elected the 264th successor to St. Peter and chose the name John Paul II in honoring his immediately predecessor. He thus became the first Polish Pope, the first non-Italian Pope since Hadrian VI in 1523, and the youngest pontiff since Pope Pius IX one hundred years ago. Like his predecessor, John Paul II declined the papal tiara and was installed in an outdoor Mass in St. Peter's Square.
With his first encyclical published on March 15, 1979 Redemptor Hominis, "The Redeemer of Man," he established the major theme and program for his pontificate that "Jesus Christ is the center of the universe and of history" and that his papacy would be devoted to redemption and the human dignity. On April 29th he conducted his first beatification making Francis Coll, O.P. and Jacques Laval, S.S.S.p. the first blesseds of his pontificate. He also began, back in 1979, preparations for the Third Millennium and Jubilee 2000. Beginning in that same year he inaugurated an odyssey that would identify him as the "Pilgrim Pope" with the most extensive travel itinerary in the history of Popes. His first papal trip was to the Dominican Republic, then the Bahamas and Mexico before returning to his native Poland to a tremendous reception in June, 1979. His visit rekindled Polish resistance to the communists and thus was born a movement that would eventually topple the hammer and sickle as Solidarity was born with the help of countryman Lech Walesa who a year later would lead a revolt against the powerful Lenin shipyards in Gdansk. The Holy Father's determination to restore human dignity for all, especially in his own country, set the direction for the road the world would follow over the next decade when communism would finally fall in East Germany, Poland and Russia. The fall of the Berlin Wall can be attributed primarily to the efforts of this dedicated Pope, not politicians. That same month on June 30th he held his first Consistory. After his successful trip to Poland the Holy Father followed that by visiting Ireland, then the United States and a whirlwind trip to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Des Moines, Iowa, Chicago and Washington D.C. and finished the year with a papal trip to Turkey.
In 1980 the Holy Father traveled the globe to various provinces in Africa including Zaire, the Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Ghana, Volta and the Ivory Coast; then to France, Brazil and West Germany where he prayed at the crumbled Berlin Wall. In June he beatified five more, including Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha the first Native American to be honored. In the Fall He presided over the first Synod of Bishops and the 5th Synod Assembly with the theme "The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World." On November 30th he issued his second encyclical on the Mercy of God, Dives in Misericordia, a document he wrote inspired from his studies of Blessed Sister Faustina Kowalska, the Messenger of Mercy who was a fellow Pole and who, as Archbishop, he had researched and spread the devotion to Divine Mercy as Jesus gave to the visionary Faustina.
The year 1981 was a pivotal year for the Holy Father for it brought into focus God's Mercy. On May 13th, while riding in a procession in St. Peter's Square on the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima after his regular weekly Papal Audience, he was shot in the abdomen by would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca who he would later forgive. He was rushed to Gemelli Hospital where he was hospitalized for 77 days following six hour surgery to remove the bullet from his colon. During his recovery in the hospital he asked for two books. Bishop Paolo Hnilica, S.J. brought him Sister Faustina's "Divine Mercy in My Soul" and a book on Our Lady of Fatima. Prior to the shooting he had traveled to the Philippines, Guam, and Japan with stopovers in Pakistan and Alaska. On September 14th he published his third encyclical Laborem exercens on human work and the rewards of toil and the just rewards for labor. No one knew the value of work ethic like this dedicated Vicar of Christ as he would prove throughout his illustrious pontificate.
On February 2, 1983 the Pope held his second Consistory and later unsealed the Holy Door at St. Peter's, something he will do this Christmas Eve when he ushers in Jubilee 2000. He also formally approved revision of the Code of Canon Law for the Latin Rite, replacing a code established in 1918 under Pope Benedict XV. Alarmed by the steady decline of vocations in the United States since Vatican II, he called for a study to rectify the situation with an Apostolic Letter to the Bishops of America on April 3rd while also extending the olive branch to the world in calling on the super powers America and Russia to negotiate an end to the arms race. That same year the Shroud of Turin was bequeathed to the Pope by King Umberto and the Holy Father designated it should stay in Turin. His travels took him to Central America, Lourdes, and Austria as well as his second visit to his homeland of Poland again. Two days after Christmas he visited the Turkish terrorist Ali Agca in the Rebibbia prison, extending his love and forgiveness.
In 1984 the Holy Father held the first international gathering of young people at the Vatican and established diplomatic relations with the United States, meeting with both President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan again in Rome. On March 25th he issued his Apostolic Exhortation Redemptionis Donum on "The Gift of Redemption" in respect to religious men and women in the Church. He also condemned anti-Semitism and Apartheid and traveled to South Korea, Papua, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Thailand in May, Switzerland in June and Canada in September, followed by visits to Spain, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico in October.
John Paul II started 1985 out quickly by making Papal Visits to Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago the end of January through February 6th. On May 11 through the 21st he was off to the Netherlands and Luxembourg and then returned to the Vatican to induct on the 25th of May 28 new members into the College of Cardinals during his third Consistory. It was an all time high induction of cardinals and included Cardinal John J. O'Connor and Cardinal Francis Arinze On June 2nd he released his third encyclical Slavorum Apostoli written to commemorate Saints Cyril and Methodius, Apostles of the Slavs, on the eleventh centenary anniversary of the death of St. Methodius. From August 8 to the 19th his focus was on the African continent with visits to Togo, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Zaire, Kenya and Morocco. He convened the second Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the 20th Anniversary of Vatican II.
The Pope began 1986 by heading for India, the first Pontiff to set foot in this land where he was received by Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity. On May 18, his 66th birthday, he issued his fourth encyclical Dominum et Vivificantem on the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church and the world. He canonized two more saints and four more blesseds as well as traveling to Colombia and Saint Lucia in July, France in October and a grueling two week trip to Oceania with stops throughout Australia, then New Zealand, Bangladesh, Singapore and Seychelles from November 18 to December 1st.
In 1987, on the Feast of the Annunciation - March 25th - the Holy Father released his fifth encyclical Redemptoris Mater on the role of Mary in the mystery of her Divine Son Jesus and her active and exemplary presence in the life of the Church. On Palm Sunday he established World Youth Days in Buenos Aires, the first of many enthusiastic gatherings while on his Papal trip to Uruguay, Chile and Argentina from March 31-April 21. After a six-day visit to Western Germany in May, he returned to Rome to begin the Marian Year for the pilgrim Church on June 7th that would extend through August 15, 1988. The next day he returned to Poland for the third time from June 8 to the 14th, then headed west in September for nine days in the United States and Canada with stops in Miami, Columbia, South Carolina, New Orleans, San Antonio, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Monterey, San Francisco and Detroit with a stop in Windsor as well. He beatified a record 107 venerables for the year including Blessed Edith Stein and canonized seventeen saints including the fifteen Japanese martyrs from the 1630's. He finished out the year by releasing on December 30th his sixth encyclical and second of the year, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis on social concerns in the development of peoples in commemorating the 20th anniversary of Paul VI's Populorum progressio.
During the Marian Year in 1988 he beatified 28 blesseds including Blessed Miguel Agustin Pro, Blessed Junipero Serra, OFM, the founder of the California missions, and Blessed Katherine Drexel in addition to a record number of canonizations including Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne who had been honored in the annual liturgy as a Blessed. He took an even more active interest in the communist countries issuing an Apostolic Letter Euntes in Mundum which commemorated the millennium anniversary of the baptism of Saint Vladimir of Kiev and the Russian Church. His travels took him to Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay from May 7-18 and Austria for four days in the third week of June. On June 28th he held his fourth Consistory with several cardinals receiving the red-hat including Washington D.C.'s Cardinal James Hickey On July 2nd he established the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei to facilitate the return to full ecclesial communion of priests, seminarians, religious and those among the laity who belonged to the St. Pius X Society founded by the excommunicated Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Ecclesia Dei also opened avenues for the Latin Mass to be celebrated in every diocese in the world once again with certain specifications and stipulations. In September it was off to Africa again where he made stops in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Mozambique from the tenth through the 19th. He returned to Lourdes and France on October 8 to the 11th.
The year 1989 was pivotal in the world and at the focal point was His Holiness who met separately with President George Bush and Mikhael Gorbachev as well as establishing diplomatic relations with Poland while restoring Archbishop Kazimierz Swiatek, who would eventually become a cardinal, to the bishopric of Minsk-Mohilev in Bielorussia for the first time since World War Two. On March 22nd he revamped the Roman Curia with his Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus which had been first issued on June 28, 1988 but to be put into effect in 1989, bringing the Curial offices up to date as they are today with the various Sacred Congregations, Pontifical Councils, Commissions and Committees as well as defining the Secretary of State, splitting it into two sections: the Secretariat of State in the First Section which is the Section for General Affairs headed by Cardinal Angelo Sodano as Secretary of State and the Section for Relations with States overseen by Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran. The Holy Father beatified 57 and canonized six and traveled to Madagascar, Reunion, Zambia and Malawi from April 28 to May 6. Then from June 1-10 he concentrated on Scandinavia with visits to Norway, Iceland, Finland, Denmark and Sweden followed by a three-day trip to Spain in August. He finished with a Far East trip to South Korea, Indonesia, East Timor and Mauritius for ten days the second week of October. A month later the Berlin Wall would be demolished and Eastern Europe, including his beloved Poland, freed. Don't let anyone tell you John Paul II didn't play a crucial part in bringing down the wall!
The nineties dawned bright with promise with the Holy Father winging to Africa again, this time with stops in Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Mali and Burkina Faso, all first time stops during the week of January 25 to February 1st followed by a two-day trip in April to Czechoslovakia where he established diplomatic relations there as well as Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria, all Eastern satellite countries that had been under communist control. He named twelve bishops for eleven dioceses in Romania and reinstated the Church there for the first time in 42 years. From May 6-13 it was off to Mexico and Curacao before heading to Malta on May 25th for two days. He finished the year travel-wise with another swing through Africa, this time return trips to Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and the Ivory Coast from September 1 to the 10th. He only canonized one saint while beatifying 37 including Blessed Juan Diego, visionary of Guadalupe and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati.
See SECTION TWO for the rest of the today's profile on Pope John Paul II.