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Biography of Pope John Paul II

on Friday, 01 August 2003. Posted in Pope John Paul II

Honour to our great Pope John Paul II - 25 years of fruitful and glorious pontificate

Pope John Paul II

For the Holy Father's 25 years of fruitful pontificate,
the Pilgrims of St. Michael have printed and distributed
7 million copies of his Apostolic Letter “Rosarium Virginis Mariae”.


October 16, 2003, will mark the 25th Anniversary of the election of John Paul II as the 263rd successor of St. Peter and head of the Roman Catholic Church. It is therefore appropriate to emphasize the extraordinary contribution to the Church and to the world of this exceptional man, a real gift from God for our troubled times, when people need to be reminded of the eternal truth and moral principles.

1978 is remembered, among other things, for being “the year of the three Popes”. After the death of Pope Paul VI, Cardinal Albino Luciani of Venice was elected Pope on August 26, and took the name of John Paul I. His smile and humility quickly won over the hearts of all Christians, but to the surprise of all, he died thirty-three days later, on September 28. This was totally unexpected, but what followed was almost unbelievable: the election, on October 16, of the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years. The dean of the Sacred College, Cardinal Pericle Felici, appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's, and announced, in Latin: “Habemus papam! (We have a new Pope)... Carolum Cardinalem... Wojtyla (pronounced Voy-tee-wah). The crowd realized that the new Pope was not an Italian, but their fear was soon replaced by cheers when they heard a few minutes later, the first speech of this “polacco”, the former Archbishop of Krakow, in Poland, delivered in flawless Italian:

John Paul II appears on the balconyJohn Paul II appears on the balcony of St. Peter's for the first time.

“May Jesus Christ be praised. Dearest brothers and sisters, we are still grieved after the death of our most beloved Pope John Paul I. And now the most eminent Cardinals have called a new Bishop of Rome. They have called him from a distant country, distant but always so close through the communion in the Christian faith and tradition. I was afraid to accept this nomination, but I did it in the spirit of obedience to Our Lord Jesus Christ and of total confidence in His Mother, the most holy Virgin Mary.

“I do not know whether I can explain myself well in your... our Italian language. If I make a mistake, you will correct me. And so I present myself to you all to confess our common faith, our hope, our confidence in the Mother of Christ and of the Church, and also to start anew on this road of history and of the Church, with the help of God and with the help of men.”

Great achievements

Only three Popes — including St. Peter, the first one — had a pontificate longer than John Paul II. St. Peter reigned on the See of Rome between 34 and 37 years; Blessed Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) reigned for 31 years and 7 months, and Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) reigned for 25 years and 5 months. So in a few months, Pope John Paul's pontificate could become the third longest in history.

What this Pope has accomplished in 25 years is simply extraordinary, and has no parallel in the history of the papacy – so much so that he will probably go down in history as one of the greatest Popes of all times, and be known by future generations as “John Paul the Great”. He is a very prolific writer, with 14 encyclicals so far (like “The Redeemer of Man”, “The Splendor of the Truth”, “The Gospel of Life”, and the latest on the Eucharist), plus 13 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions, and 42 apostolic letters (the most recent on the Rosary). All of his writings and speeches fill over 200 volumes.

To set them as an example to people, and to show that God, through them, is still active in our world, John Paul II has now canonized 469 people and beatified 1,314, which is more than all his predecessors combined (since the foundation of the Congregation of Saints in 1594). He was the first Pope to visit a Jewish synagogue (in Rome in 1986) and a Moslem mosque (in Syria in 2001). He miraculously survived an assassination attempt in 1981, and appears to be the Pope mentioned in the Third Secret of Fatima. He consecrated the world to the Virgin Mary, and many say that he is the one who, through his support of the Solidarity trade union in Poland in the 1980s, caused the fall of Communism. In 1992, he issued “The Catechism of the Catholic Church”, the first such comprehensive document issued since the Council of Trent in the 16th century, which clearly summarizes all the essential beliefs and moral tenets of the Church.

John Paul II is said to be the most recognized person in the world, since he is the most travelled Pope in history, having accomplished 102 apostolic journeys in 129 different countries (203 if one counts those that have been visited more than once), with over 2,400 official speeches delivered in 580 days spent outside of Italy, having logged roughly 725,000 miles (1,167,000 kilometers), which is equivalent to going round the world about 30 times. (He also completed 142 journeys within Italy, and as Bishop of Rome, he has visited 301 of the 334 parishes.) In 2003, he has visited Spain, Croatia, Bosnia, and this September, Slovakia.

John Paul II in SlovakiaThe Pope in Slovakia, September 13, 2004

In this last journey, everybody could notice the Pope's pains and physical limitations — he can no longer walk — but they were all the more moved to see him make the effort to go and visit people in other countries just the same. Many say that the Pope's sufferings, offered for salvation of souls, are what have held back much of the calamities the world will have to face, because people strayed away from God and His Commandments. However, the Pope's mental capacity is not impaired at all. A visitor last year asked how he was, to which the Pope replied: “From the neck down, not so good. But I don't lead the Church with my feet.”

John Paul II speaks eight languages fluently, and has learned many more for his apostolic journeys. No human being in history has drawn so huge crowds: for example, a Mass in Manila, Philippines, for the World Youth Day in 1995 drew 5 million people, and in July, 2002, over 10 million people gathered along the streets of Mexico City in one day to see the Holy Father. Why so much enthusiasm for one person? It is because he is the Vicar of Christ, represents Jesus on earth, and that by looking at his face, one has a glimpse of God the Father's infinite goodness. Moreover, what young people appreciate in him is that he is not afraid of proclaiming the truth, the whole teachings of Jesus and of His Church, even the parts that are more difficult to follow.

What is keeping the Pope going? These words of St. Paul: “Woe to me if I don't preach the Gospel!” On June 12, 2003, reflecting on the 100 apostolic journeys he had made abroad so far, the Holy Father said:

“Since the day when I was elected Bishop of Rome, October 16, 1978, Jesus' commandment: `Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation' (Mk 16:15) has resounded in the depths of my heart with special intensity and urgency. I felt it was my duty, therefore, to imitate the Apostle Peter who `went here and there among them all' (Acts 9:32), to build up and to consolidate the Church's vitality in fidelity to the Word and in the service of truth; to `tell them all... that God loves them, that the Church loves them, that the Pope loves them and also wants to receive from them the encouragement and example of their goodness, their faith'.”

Will Jesus find faith on earth?

The Holy Father developed these thoughts in a homily given on October 18, 1998, on the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of his pontificate:

“`When the Son of man comes, will He find faith on earth?' (Lk 18:8). Throughout the 2,000 years of the Christian era, this question which Christ once asked His disciples has often challenged the men whom Divine Providence has called to take up the Petrine ministry...

“After the Resurrection, Christ asked Peter three times: `Do you love Me?' (cf. Jn 21:15-17). The Apostle, aware of his own weakness, answered: `Lord, you know everything; you know that I love You”, and received from Him the mandate: “Feed My sheep' (Jn 21:17). The Lord entrusted this mission to Peter and, through him, to all his successors. He addressed these same words to the one who is speaking to you today, when he was entrusted with the task of strengthening the faith of his brethren.

“How many times my thoughts have returned to Jesus' words, which Luke has recorded for us in his Gospel. Shortly before facing His Passion, Jesus said to Peter: `Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and you, when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren' (Lk 22:31-33). `Strengthening his brethren in the faith' is thus one of the essential aspects of the pastoral service entrusted to Peter and his successors. In today's liturgy Jesus asks the question: `When the Son of man comes, will He find faith on earth?'. This is a question that challenges everyone, but in particular the successors of Peter.

“When He comes, will He find faith on earth? This Sunday's liturgical readings can suggest a twofold answer to his question. We find the first in St. Paul's exhortation to his trusted co-worker, Timothy. The Apostle writes: `I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching' (2 Tm 4:1-2).

This text presents in summary form a precise plan of action. Indeed, the apostolic ministry, especially the ministry of Peter, consists first and foremost in teaching. Anyone who teaches divine truth must himself `remain faithful', as the Apostle also writes to Timothy, `to what he has learned and believed' (2 Tm 3:14).

“The Bishops, and even more so the Pope, must constantly return to the sources of wisdom that lead to salvation. They must love God's word. After 20 years of service in the Chair of Peter, I cannot fail to ask myself a few questions today. Have you observed all of this? Are you a diligent and watchful teacher of faith in the Church? Have you sought to bring the great work of the Second Vatican Council closer to the people of today? Have you tried to satisfy the expectations of believers within the Church, and that hunger for truth which is felt in the world outside the Church?

And St. Paul's invitation echoes in my thoughts: `I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word' (2 Tm 4:1-2)! Preach the word! This is my duty; to do all I can so that when the Son of man comes, He will find faith on earth.

“There is another answer we can draw from the first biblical reading taken from the Book of Exodus. It presents the symbolic image of Moses in prayer with his hands held up to heaven, while from a hilltop he follows the battle his people are fighting against the Amalekites. Whenever Moses raised his hands, Israel prevailed, and since Moses felt his arms growing weary, a stone was found for him to sit on, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, held up his hands. And he continued to pray until sunset when Joshua defeated Amalek (cf. Ex 17:11-13).

“This image has extraordinary expressive power: the image of the pastor at prayer. It would be hard to find a more eloquent reference for all the situations in which the new Israel, the Church, must combat various Amalekites. In a certain sense, everything depends on Moses raising up his hands.

“The shepherd's prayer supports the flock. This is certain. However, it is also true that the people's prayer supports whoever has the task of leading them. So it has been since the beginning. When Peter was imprisoned in Jerusalem to be condemned to death, like James, after the festival, the whole Church prayed for him (cf. Acts 12:1-5). The Acts of the Apostles recount that he was miraculously released from prison (cf. Acts 12:6-11).

“So it has happened countless times down the ages. I myself can attest to this, since I have experienced it personally. The prayer of the Church is very powerful!... With all my heart I once again entrust my life and ministry to the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Redeemer and Mother of the Church. To Her I repeat with filial abandonment: Totus tuus! Amen.”

Formed at the school of suffering

Karol and his mother EmiliaEmilia with her newborn, Karol. “My `Lolek' will become a great man,” she said.

Karol Józef Wojtyla was born in Wadowice, a small city of 15,000 inhabitants 50 kilometres from Krakow, on May 18, 1920, the second of two sons born to Karol Wojtyla (then aged 40), and Emilia Kaczorowska (then aged 36). He was born in an apartment whose windows looked out on the Church of Our Lady where he would later worship and serve as an altar boy. At his birth, his mother asked the midwife to open the window, and the hymns of the vespers in honor of Mary, sung in the church, were the first sounds that the future Pope heard at his birth.

Karol's father, born in 1879, earned his livelihood as a tailor until he was drafted into the Austrian army in 1900. The military became his lifetime career. In 1906, he married Emilia Kaczorowska, the daughter of a Krakow upholsterer. On the same year, she gave birth to her first child, Edmund. In 1914, she gave birth to a girl, Olga, who died a few days later.

Karol's parentsKarol's parents with their first child, Edmund, in 1908. The future Pope experienced suffering very early, having lost, by the age of 20, his parents and his only brother.

The young Edmund was doing so well at school that it was decided he would become a doctor. As for Karol (“Lolek”, as she called him), Emilia adored him. She told the neighbors that he would be a great man, a priest. She taught him to cross himself. She read Scripture with him. But she was often in bed, suffering from inflammation of both heart and kidney. On April 13, 1929, when he was arriving home back from school, the neighbour bluntly told him that his mother had died in the afternoon, at the age of 45. Karol was only 8 years old. His father took him to Kalwaria, a Marian shrine close to Wadowice. Karol's lifelong devotion to the Virgin Mary began on that trip after the loss of his mother.

Karol with his fatherOn this picture of the last day of elementary school, Karol (right) has the op- portunity to pose with his father (left), who was avail- able, being retired from the army, to accompany his son in the visit of a salt mine.

His eldest brother, Edmund (who shared Karol's passion for theatre and soccer), became a doctor in 1930. Two years later, on December 5, 1932, he died (at the age of 26) from scarlet fever contracted from one of his patients at the hospital of Bielsko-Biala. This was a severe blow to the father and the young Karol, who says to his father, to comfort him: “Don't cry, it was God's will.” Left to themselves, the young Karol and his father grew closer to each other, the father spending whole nights kneeling in prayer. As pope, John Paul II remembered:

"Day after day I was able to observe the austere way in which my father lived. By profession he was a soldier and, after my mother's death, his life became one of constant prayer. Sometimes I would wake up during the night and find my father on his knees, just as I would always see him kneeling in the parish church. We never spoke about a vocation to the priesthood, but his example was in a way my first seminary, a kind of domestic seminary."

Karol Wojtyla altar boyKarol, at age 13, as an altar boy with the parish priest of Wadowice

Karol's father took a great interest in his son's work, giving every encouragement to do well. He was very proud of him, since he was a model kid: Karol obtained excellent marks at school in every subject, excelled in sports, and was extremely popular with his schoolmates. A program was set: waking up at 6, followed by breakfast and Mass at the parish church where the young Karol served as an altar boy, school from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., recreation, back to church in the afternoon, homework, supper, and a late walk with his father. They prayed and played together. One of Karol's classmates in Wadowice remembers that “after the death of his wife, Karol's father devoted himself solely to his son's upbringing... His father was sewing, washing, and cooking, being Karol's mother, father, friend, and colleague.”

In 1938, father and son moved to Krakow, so that the young Karol could enrol at the Jagiellonian University to study the Polish language, literature, and philosophy. Wishing to make the most of the courses offered, he enroled in 36 hours of class a week, although the university only required 10. As usual, Karol obtained good marks in all of his exams. While studying at the university, he joined the "Studio 38", an experimental theater group founded by Tadeusz Kudliñski.

World War II begins

On September 1, 1939, Karol had gone to the Wavel Cathedral to attend Mass and go to confession, as he was doing every first Friday of the month. He then heard the first bombs dropped by the German army on Krakow: the Second World War had broken out. The priest asked Karol to serve his Mass: “We must celebrate Holy Mass just the same. We must ask God to spare Poland.”

Since Poland was invaded by the West, Karol and his father decided to flee towards the East, by foot with a case containing a few personal belongings. After having walked 200 kilometers, they realized that their flight was useless, and that Poland found itself caught in a stranglehold: the Russian army had also started invading Poland, through the East. The two invaders had secretly decided to divide Poland. The Wojtylas therefore returned to Krakow.

This was the beginning of a life of privations and terror for the Wojtylas and all of the Poles: people queuing for bread and sugar, bargaining to find some coal for winter. On November 6, the Jagiellonian University is closed down, and 183 professors are arrested and sent to concentration camps. A small underground core formed around a few professors who had escaped the raid, and who continued, at the risk of their lives, to give classes to some students, including Karol. Most of the churches in Poland are closed, with priests, monks and nuns deported to concentration camps. In five years of Nazi occupation, 1,932 priests, 850 monks, and 289 nuns died.

Jan Tyranowski and the Living Rosary

Jan TyranowskiJan Tyranowski

It was during these first months of national humiliation that Karol Wojtyla came across Jan Tyranowski, a tailor who lived alone, and who was convinced that anyone can become a saint. In Krakow, the Salesian Fathers organized a Lenten retreat in 1940, and asked Tyranowski to organize the Living Rosary, which consisted in groups of 15 young people who each meditated upon one of the 15 mysteries of the Rosary each day. Tyranowski had a rather curious way of recruiting members: early in the morning or Sundays after Mass, he would stand at the door of the church watching who came and went. Then he would choose a young man and approach him. This was how he noticed Karol Wojtyla. He soon became for him, as he was for many other young people, a spiritual master, pledging them to follow the commandment of Christ of loving God and neighbour above all.

Tyranowski, who was a real mystic and ascetic, urged them to read the latest books on theology, and led them on the path to holiness with the readings of the writings of the two great Spanish mystics, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. Tyranowski was a true educator, and Karol found in him a guide who was patient, meek, but also firm and tenacious. Tyranowski's motto was: “Every moment must be used for something.” This thought was to become one the most outstanding characteristics of the life and work of the future Pope.

Tyranowski (who died in 1947, at the age of 47) wanted his disciples to keep a diary of each action of the day, in order to know if they had fulfilled their daily obligations well. Every week, Karol went to see him to read his notes, and give an account of all that he had done. The great qualities that Karol Wojtyla possesses and that amaze his circle, whether as a professor, Bishop, and then Pope, seem to come from this austere training received from Tyranowski. Even exhausted by age and illnesses, the Holy Father continues to show an unshakeable will, a resistance to pain, and an ardour at work that can outdo any of his most devoted collaborators.

Karol will never miss saying his prayers daily. Tyranowski did not have recourse to force, but persuasion. As a Pope, Karol will write about Tyranowski: “He showed me the relevation of a new universe, with his words, his spirituality, and the example of a life entirely consecrated to God and, by himself, he represented a new world that I did not know yet. I saw the beauty of a soul revealed by grace.”

Part of this new world could be found in the writings of St. John of the Cross, who will have an enduring appeal for Karol. In his poems and comments, Tyranowski taught how to reach God through contemplation, by giving up, almost brutally, all terrestrial attachment and all material goods. He taught people how to empty their “self”, to leave all the place for God, who, with His splendor, fills this emptiness.

“It is a daily struggle against yourself: a struggle to submit yourself not to what is easiest, but to what is the most difficult; not to what appears to you as the most pleasant, but the most unpleasant. . . not to what comforts you, but to what leaves you disconsolate. God rejoices at seeing you ready to face suffering and privation out of love for Him; He prefers that to all consolation, spiritual visions, and meditations.”

Working in a factory

Karol Wojtyla and Maria Anna Wia-drowskaKarol walking with his maternal aunt and god- mother, Maria Anna Wia- drowska

Officially no longer a student, Karol had to find a job, with a work card proving his usefulness to the war economy. Otherwise, he was in danger of being shipped to some labour camp in Germany, as it had already happened to thousands of young Poles. He found a job in a limestone quarry in Krakow, belonging to the Solway company. His first work in the cold winter of 1940 consisted in breaking stones with a large hammer. Before long, he was promoted to the position of “shot fixer”; this job meant that he had to pack the explosives and string up the fuses prior to blasting. Another man would then come along and light the fuse.

His days work ended, Karol Wojtyla the worker would become Karol Wojtyla the student. In 1942, he was transferred to the water purification department of the Solway factory, which was a less physically demanding job than the quarry. However, the hard work, study, and lack of proper nourishment soon took their toll. One evening, on February 29, 1944, he collapsed in the street and was hit by a passing German army truck. He laid the whole night unconscious in that street until a passing woman found him early the next morning and had him rushed to the hospital. On examination, he was found to have a fractured skull.

In 1982, during one of his apostolic journeys in Africa, John Paul II evoked this time, which he considers “a grace in his life of having worked in a quarry and a factory,” adding that “this experience of life in a quarry, with all of its positive aspects and miseries, as well as the horrors of the deportation of my fellow countrymen to death camps, have deeply marked my existence.”

The death of his father

In the winter of 1941, Karol's father fell seriously ill, and could no longer take care of their apartment, being bed-ridden. After his day work, Karol used to go to the Kydrynskis, family friends of his, to have supper, and then bring to his father a plate prepared by his hostess. On February 18, 1941, went he arrived home, he found his father dead, from a stroke. He was 62. As he told later French writer Andre Frossard, “At twenty I had already lost all the people I loved.” Karol spent the whole night kneeling in prayer, to watch over the corpse.

Karol then moves to the Kydrynskis' for six months. He spends a lot of time in prayer, sometimes prostrated on the floor, his arms stretched out at the sides. The death of his father brings him even deeper into mystical and philosophical thoughts. In front of the brutality of the Nazis, Karol said: “Prayer is the only weapon that is worth using.” Prayer and confidence in God were his only weapons during these years of occupation to fight evil and violence.

The Living Rosary had expanded. Tyranowski had made of the first fifteen members group leaders, with each of these groups including fifteen members. The Living Rosary marked the soul, and brought it closer to God.

Karol was also deeply involved in the Rhapsodic Theatre, created in 1941. It was a vagabond theatre, and the troupe moved from one house to another, performing in the living rooms of friends who would invite people they could trust. Karol embodied so well the characters he played that no one doubted he would become an actor. The last role he played was that of King Boleslas, who killed, with his hands, Saint Stanislas, Bishop of Krakow.

In addition to these clandestine activities, Karol was also actively engaged in an underground movement helping Jews to escape the Nazi terror of concentration camps and gas chambers. His name was therefore placed on the Nazi blacklist.

“I want to become a priest”

In the fall of 1942, Karol went to the palace of Archbishop Sapieha of Krakow, and said to him: “I want to become a priest.” He asked the director of the theatrical company not to give him any more roles. The only drama he would play for the rest of his life would be the sacrifice of Christ.

Karol enroled at the underground faculty of theology, and for two years, pursued his studies in the utmost secrecy, continuing to work at the Solvay factory. The clandestine seminarians were told by the Archbishop not to change their activities, in order not to be discovered by the Nazi army, and be automatically deported to concentration camps. Archbishop Sapieha was very attentive towards the young Karol, inviting him to serve his Mass and have breakfast with him.

Karol preferred to work on night shifts at the Solvay factory, for he could take advantage of the calm that reigned in the factory to pray and meditate more easily. His colleagues at work saw him kneel down, around midnight. Some poked fun at him, calling him “the little priest”, and throwing at him pieces of tow and other trash, but Karol did not take offence at it.

Karol was reading his breviary and another book that was to have a deep influence on him, “The Treaty of the True Devotion to the Virgin Mary” by St. Louis Marie de Montfort.

He had more difficulties with the voluminous book on natural theology that he had to study. At first, this book was for him like a block of granite. “I was seating near the stove, trying to understand something, in vain.” But after two months, he was able to say: “This book finally opened to me a new world, showed me a new approach to reality, and made me discover problems I had never thought about before.”

Every day, Karol walked through the whole city to go to the grave of his father, and in the evening, he was prostrated on the floor of his room in prayer for hours.

The situation in Poland was becoming more and more dangerous. After the Warsaw uprising on August 1, 1944, in which 200,000 Poles were massacred, the Germans reacted by arresting all the Poles who could represent a threat to them. On August 6, fearing a similar revolt in Krakow, the Nazis organized a search. Street by street, house by house, they searched, taking away all males between the ages of 15 and 50. 8,000 were thus arrested and deported.

As it happened, they also visited the house of the Koltarcyks, where Karol lived. Karol was home at that time, and when he heard the soldiers come in, he knelt down and began to pray. The soldiers visited the rooms on the first floor, but forgot to search the room in the basement — Karol's room. Once again he was saved, through prayer.

Archbishop Sapieha then decided to hide the twenty underground seminarians in his palace. On his request, Karol's name is removed from the list of workers of the Solvay factory. The seminarians stayed hidden there until Krakow was “liberated” by the Soviet army in January of 1945.

This liberation of Poland from the Nazis will be short-lived, since it will be replaced by an even worse dictatorship, that of Soviet Communism, that soon proved to be very hostile to the Church.

Ordained to the priesthood

Father Karol WojtylaThe newly-ordained priest

Karol had become enamoured of the mysical writings of the great Carmelite saint John of the Cross, and wanted to become a contemplative friar. Wojtyla petitioned Archbishop Sapieha three times for permission to enter a monastery; each time, the Archbishop would hear none of it. “The war is over. We are in a serious shortage of priests, so we terribly need Karol Wojytla in our diocese,” the Archbishop said, adding, “Later, it is the universal Church that will need him.”

On November 1, 1946, All Saints' Day, Karol Wojtyla was ordained a priest (at the age of 26) by Archbishop Sapieha (soon after to be made a cardinal) in his private chapel of the archbishop's palace. The next day, November 2, was All Souls Day, when Catholics remember their deceased relatives and friends. On this day, priests are able to say three Masses. Those Father Wojtyla celebrated were for his dead parents and brother, in the St. Leonard's Chapel of the Wavel Cathedral. “Fecit mihi magna” (He has done for me great things), Karol wrote on the thank-you card offered to his friends. The following Sunday, he said Mass at the parish church of his native Wadowice.

From all over the world, it is the custom for Bishops to send exceptionally promising priests to study in Rome, and that is obviously what happened with Wojtyla. Most of the Poles who studied theology in Rome resided at the Polish Seminary, but Archbishop Sapieha chose to send Karol to the Belgian College, and to study at the Angelicum Pontifical Institute, run by the Dominican Fathers, specialists in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. There were 22 seminarians at the Belgian College, including five Americans. Karol spent two years there, which gave him the opportunity to improve his French with the Belgians, his English with the Americans, while learning Italian at the Angelicum. (Karol already spoke German, and had learned Spanish Castilian by himself in Krakow, to be able to read the writings of the Spanish saint John of the Cross in their original language.)

As usual, Karol had exceptional results in his exams, and as if this was not enough, he surprised his fellow seminarians by his athletic skills. The most famous teacher of the Angelicum was Father Garrigou-Lagrange, one of the greatest theologians of his century, and formidable exponent of the Thomist thinking and a specialist in the mystical theology of St. John of the Cross. Karol remembered him as the most brilliant of all the teachers that he had had. Karol's doctoral thesis was on “The Doctrine of Faith in the writings of St. John of the Cross,” and obviously, it was Father Garrigou-Lagrange who directed him in his thesis. (St. John's motto was: “One must renounce everything that is not of God.”) Karol will obtain for this thesis an exceptional mark of 50/50 with the mention “magna cum laude” (“with great distinction”).

Priest in a Communist regime

In Poland, while Father Wojtyla was away in Rome, a Communist “People's Republic” had been imposed, and tensions were rising between the Church and the government as publications were censored, religious education was crushed, Church property was seized, and many priests were imprisoned. The Primate of Poland, Cardinal August Hlond, dies on October 23, 1948, at the age of 67. On November 12, Pope Pius XII appoints Bishop Stefan Wyszynski, then aged 47, to replace him as Primate and Archbishop of Gnezno and Warsaw.

 Father WojtylaFather Wojtyla watches over the 5,500 souls of his parish.

On his return to Poland in July, 1948, Father Wojtyla was appointed curate to the parish of Niegowic, a poor village about 50 kilometres east from Krakow. Like St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, Father Wojtyla kneels down and kisses the ground when he arrives in his new parish. (He will keep this habit for all the new countries he will visit as a Pope.) He will see by himself the effects of Stalinism, with the secret police trying to dismantle the Catholic Youth Association of his parish, and replace it with the Young Socialists Section.

On March 17, 1949, Father Wojtyla is appointed curate of St. Florian's in Krakow. Fifty years later, John Paul II will say that the most remarkable experience of his early years as a priest was to discover the primary importance of youth. “It is a period of life given by Providence to each one as a responsibility,” he said. “During this period, young people not only search for the meaning of life, but also for a concrete way to live this life. They want to exist by themselves. Every pastor must recognize this feature in each young man and young lady, and love this fundamental aspect of youth.”

Young people who went to confession to Father Wojtyla said that “he knew how to listen to people, and was ready to answer countless questions.” Father Wojtyla said this about confession to his friend, Father Malinski:

“You must not content yourself with giving just a few affable words. You must create a dialogue. You must treat the penitent with your heart. Confession is the supreme moment of our apostolic activity. We must keep our apostolic values. If a priest loses his deep interior, he turns, little by little, into a mere bureaucrat, and his apostolate becomes a boring routine, solely dedicated to the settlement of daily business.”

Starved of religious education in schools, youngsters followed Father Wojtyla on walks and mountain rambles. A makeshift altar would be erected, Holy Mass celebrated, and he would talk to them about their eternal destiny as children of God.

Cardinal Sapieha died in 1951. His successor, Archbishop Eugeniusz Baziak, told Father Wojtyla to take a two-year sabbatical to study philosophy and prepare another thesis, to acquire the status of professor.

In 1953, the persecution against the Church increases. Archbishop Baziak and his auxiliary Bishop are arrested (and so is the parish priest of St. Floran's), and then it is the turn of Cardinal Wyszynski, who will be freed only in 1956, with the arrival at the head of the Polish Government of Wladyslaw Gomulka, an anti-Stalinist Communist who had spent 8 years in jail.

In October, 1954, the Communist Government closes down the Theology Faculty of the Jagiellonian University, where Father Wojtyla was teaching Christian ethics. In 1956, he is appointed head of the Institute of Ethics at Lublin University, the only Catholic University in Communist Eastern Europe.

Bishop Wojtyla

On June 4, 1958, Father Wojtyla was enjoying a canoeing holiday on the Masurian lakes with some students when he was called to see the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, to learn about his appointment by Pope Pius XII to the post of Auxiliary Bishop of Krakow. When the Primate asked him: “Do you accept this nomination”, Father Wojtyla replied, without hesitation: “Where must I sign?” He was consecrated Bishop in Wavel Cathedral by Archbishop Baziak of Krakow on September 28.

Bishop Wojtyla coat of armsLike every Bishop, Karol Wojtyla had to choose a motto and a coat of arms. His coat of arms represents the Virgin Mary (the letter “M”) at the foot of the Cross. His motto in Latin “Totus Tuus” (“I am all yours”), comes from the great French Marian saint, Louis Marie de Montfort, the author of the “Treaty of the True Devotion to the Virgin Mary” that Karol had read so avidly when he was working at the Solvay factory. This motto shows that Karol Wojtyla has consecrated himself to the Virgin Mary, and totally belongs to Her. From now on, he will have these words (Totus Tuus) on the top right of every document and paper he will write, even as a Pope.

Bishop WojtylaAt 38 years of age, Karol is Poland's youngest Bishop.

On October 9, Pope Pius XII died. On October 28, a new Pope was elected, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli of Venice, who took the name of John XXIII. In January of 1959, he decided to convoke a new council, Vatican II, which opened in October, 1962. Bishop Wojtyla was one of the about 2,500 Bishops invited, and he will take in all four sessions of the Council, which will end in 1965.

In 1960, Karol Wojtyla published his most famous written work, Love and Responsibility, which will quickly become a best-seller in Poland, with 100,000 copies sold. It was also translated into several other languages — most of these translations being published only after the election of Wojtyla as Successor of St. Peter. Pope Paul VI, delighted with this apologetical defense of the traditional catholic teaching of marriage, will rely extensively on Archbishop Wojtyla's counsel in writing his encyclical letter Humanae Vitae.

On June 15, 1962, Archbishop Baziak of Krakow dies. His auxiliary, Bishop Wojtyla, becomes Vicar Capitular (administrator) of the Archdiocese, until a new Archbishop is officially appointed, which could take some time, because of the conflict between the Communist Government and the Church. Cardinal Wyszynski proposes a few names, which were vetoed by the Government.

When Wyszynski proposed the name of Wojtyla, the Government accepted, thinking that this young Bishop would behave more like an intellectual, and not as a fervent opponent of Communism, like Cardinal Wyszynski. They thought he would be more accommodating than the Primate, but they soon discovered that Wojtyla was just as great a foe of Communism as the Cardinal, and agreed with him on every issue, never compromising the truth. The Superior of a Benedictine monastery, who was imprisoned in Gdansk, was told by the commandant of the prison: “We have just received excellent news; Wojtyla has been appointed Archbishop of Krakow.” Three months later, the commandant came back and said: “This Wojtyla tricked us!”

On August 15, 1963, for the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, the miraculous statue of the Virgin of Ludzmierz, dating from 1420, is carried in a procession. A sceptre falls from Her hands, but Bishop Wojtyla catches it in midair. Then Cardinal Wyszynski has this reflection: “Karol, the Virgin has just given you power over the universal Church.”

Karol Wojtyla Wearing the damask chasuble of Queen Anna JaggelonWearing the damask chasuble of Queen Anna Jaggelon for the installation ceremony

On March 8, 1964, Karol Wojtyla was officially installed as new Archbishop of Krakow, in a splendid ceremony at Wavel Cathedral. For the occasion, Bishop Wojtyla had chosen to wear symbols that represented the thousand years of Christianity in Poland, to remind everyone, including the Communist authorities, that without the Church, Poland would not exist. He wore a damask chasuble, donated to the Church by Queen Anna Jagellon in the Middle Ages, a pallium offered in the 16<M>th century by Queen Jadwiga, the mitre of Bishop Andrzej Lipski, in the 17<M>th century, the crosier of Jan Malachowski, at the time of King John Sobieski, and the ring of Bishop Maurus, who died in 1118, the 4<M>th successor of St. Stanislas on the See of Krakow. Karol Wojtyla was now himself a successor of St. Stanislas, who died as a martyr, killed by his own king, Boleslas. By celebrating Mass in front of the tomb of the martyr, Bishop Wojtyla showed that he was ready to shed his blood for the defense of his faith, just like Stanislas.

Cardinal WojtylaOn May 29, 1967, Archbishop Wojtyla is created a cardinal by Pope Paul VI (see picture), which means that he is called by the Pope to act as one of his assistants in the administration of the universal Church. As a member of the Sacred College, he will be summoned to take part in the election of the future Pope. Wojtyla was appointed secretary of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, and served on three Congregations of the Vatican, which required him to travel often to Rome.

In 1960, the Polish Government requistioned the land of the Church of Nowa Huta, in order to build a school on it. A large industrial city of 120,000 inhabitants just outside of Krakow, Nowa Huta had been selected by the Communist Party as the model of a socialist city, and they wanted no church in that “model city”. Bishop Wojtyla began a long series of protests. In 1967, Cardinal Wojtyla broke the first sod of the site of the new church. The cornerstone had been donated by Pope Paul VI, which was taken from near the tomb of St. Peter, in the Vatican caves. Ten years later, the church was consecrated.

In 1976, Cardinal Wojtyla was invited by Pope Paul VI to preach (in Italian) the Lenten “retreat” sermons to the Roman Curia (the Vatican's top civil servants) and His Holiness himself, which shows how much he was appreciated by the Pope. These sermons were published under the title A Sign of Contradiction.

Stefan Wyszynski and Karol WojtylaThe two Polish Cardinals, Stefan Wyszynski and Karol Wojtyla, in 1974. On October 16, 1978, Wyszynski said to the new Pope, Karol Wojtyla: “You will be the Pope that will lead the Church to the 21st century.”

It is said that in 1947, when he was studying in Italy, Karol Wojtyla once met the mystic priest Padre Pio (whom he declared a saint in 2002), who told him that he would become Pope, even adding, <>“You will see your white cassock stained with blood” (the May 13, 1981 assassination attempt). As a young priest, Karol often alluded to this prophecy, and joking, judged its realization impossible. But after he became a Bishop, and then a Cardinal, he no longer spoke about it, because he was starting to think that the prophecy might well come true.

So, when he learned about Pope Paul VI's death on August 6, 1978, Cardinal Wojtyla seemed deeply troubled as he prepared to travel to Rome. Greatly relieved at the speedy election of John Paul I, he returned to Krakow with a weight lifted from him. However, when he heard the shocking news of the sudden death of the new Pope, he turned as white as a sheet, and retired in his chapel for several hours to pray. “Pray for me” were the last words he said on Polish soil as their Cardinal.

On October 16, 1978, the prophecy came true: Karol Wojtyla was elected the first non-Italian Pope since Adrian VI (from the Netherlands) in 1523, and obviously, the first Pope from Poland. When asked by Cardinal Villot if he accepted his election, Karol Wojtyla replied: “In the obedience of faith before Christ my Lord, abandoning myself to the Mother of Christ and the Church, and conscious of the great difficulties, I accept.”

The surprise was enormous in the world, but so was the joy in Poland, for all knew this was the beginning of a deadly blow against Communism in this country, and in the rest of Eastern Europe.

However, many in Poland were not really surprised, for they knew that Karol Wojtyla had been prepared for a long time by Jesus and His Mother, the Virgin Mary, to become the Successor of Peter, that he truly is a gift from Mary to today's Church. On this subject, it is worth quoting excerpts from the letter of the Polish Bishops, which was read in every church in Poland on January 28, 1979:

“For the first time in the history of the universal Church, a son of the Polish soil seats on the throne of Peter. It is an immense joy, a grace so great, and a historic event of such dimension that we are bound to talk about it, especially at the time when we inaugurate the 4th year of thanksgiving before the 600th Anniversary of Our Lady of Jasna Gora. For we do feel that this election is Her work; that it is a grace obtained through Her intercession with Her Son.

“During history, Poland has been called more than once to help the Church and the human family. In 1683, Polish King John Sobieski, at the battle of Vienna, saved Christianity and Western civilization. Learning that the Turks wanted to turn St. Peter's into “a stable for the horses of the Turkish vizier,” he hastened to go to Vienna, to answer the call of Pope Innocent XI: Son, save Christianity and Western culture!

“Now, amidst the torments of the world, at a time when secularization dominates everywhere, when young people get lost in a life without faith nor an ideal, all the eyes of the world are now turned on Poland... It seems that we can hear all of humanity repeat to the Pope issued from Poland the words of Pope Innocent XI: Son, save Christianity!

“One can see the realization of the prophetic words of the Polish poet Julius Slowacki (written in 1846) :

Amid dissention, God our Lord
Strikes a huge bell for a Slavic Pope.
He shall cleanse every decay
From the world's wounds – vermin, reptile.
Health he shall bring, love enkindle,
And the world he will save.'”

Eternal Father, God of Heaven and earth, we thank you for having given us, in these perilous times, this great Pope guided by the Virgin Mary since his birth, directly enlightened by the light of the Holy Spirit, and strong with your omnipotence. May Mary, our Holy Mother, continue to guide the Holy Father and hold his hand, until the final triumph of good over evil, of love over hatred, of justice over dishonesty. After this pious life of hard work, may the Immaculate, whom he loved and honoured so much, grant to him a throne close to Hers.

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