On May 1, 2011, in St. Peter's Square, Pope Benedict XVI presided over the beatification of his immediate predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in front of a crowd of over 1.5 million, the largest crowd ever for a beatification ceremony. As editor, Giovanni Maria Vian wrote in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, about the history of the Church, it is the first time that a Pope is raised to the honours of the altar by his immediate successor. In the 20th century, Pius X, the most recent Pope Saint, Innocent XI, Pius IX and John XXIII were raised to the honours of the altar but not by their immediate successors.
This beatification also took place in record time: John Paul II died on April 2, 2005 and was beatified exactly six years and twenty-nine days later. The record belonged to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who died on September 5, 1997 and was beatified by John Paul II on October 19, 2003, six years and forty-four days later.
Here are excerpts from the homily of Pope Benedict XVI on May 1 for the beatification of John Paul II:
Polish stamp issued for the beatification of John Paul II. (Joint issue with the Vatican.)
Dear Brothers and Sisters, six years ago we gathered in this Square to celebrate the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Our grief at his loss was deep, but even greater was our sense of an immense grace which embraced Rome and the whole world: a grace which was in some way the fruit of my beloved predecessor's entire life, and especially of his witness in suffering. Even then we perceived the fragrance of his sanctity, and in any number of ways God's people showed their veneration for him. For this reason, with all due respect for the Church's canonical norms, I wanted his cause of beatification to move forward with reasonable haste. And now the longed-for day has come; it came quickly because this is what was pleasing to the Lord: John Paul II is blessed! (…)
Today is the Second Sunday of Easter, which Blessed John Paul II entitled Divine Mercy Sunday. The date was chosen for today's celebration because, in God's providence, my predecessor died on the vigil of this feast. Today is also the first day of May, Mary's month, and the liturgical memorial of Saint Joseph the Worker. All these elements serve to enrich our prayer, they help us in our pilgrimage through time and space; but in heaven a very different celebration is taking place among the angels and saints! Even so, God is but one, and one too is Christ the Lord, who like a bridge joins earth to heaven. At this moment we feel closer than ever, sharing as it were in the liturgy of heaven. (…)
In his Testament, the new Blessed wrote: "When, on October 16, 1978, the Conclave of Cardinals chose John Paul II, the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, said to me:'The task of the new Pope will be to lead the Church into the Third Millennium.'" And the Pope added: "I would like once again to express my gratitude to the Holy Spirit for the great gift of the Second Vatican Council, to which, together with the whole Church — and especially with the whole episcopate — I feel indebted. I am convinced that it will long be granted to the new generations to draw from the treasures that this Council of the twentieth century has lavished upon us. As a Bishop who took part in the Council from the first to the last day, I desire to entrust this great patrimony to all who are and will be called in the future to put it into practice. For my part, I thank the Eternal Shepherd, who has enabled me to serve this very great cause in the course of all the years of my Pontificate."
John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger: two close friends
And what is his "cause"? It is the same one that John Paul II presented during his first solemn Mass in Saint Peter's Square in the unforgettable words: "Do not be afraid! Open, open wide the doors to Christ!" What the newly-elected Pope asked of everyone, he did first of all, himself: society, culture, political and economic systems he opened up to Christ, turning back with the strength of a titan — a strength which came to him from God — a tide which appeared irreversible. By his witness of faith, love and apostolic courage, accompanied by great human charisma, this exemplary son of Poland helped believers throughout the world not to be afraid to be called Christian, to belong to the Church, to speak of the Gospel. In a word: he helped us not to fear the truth, because truth is the guarantee of liberty. To put it even more succinctly: he gave us the strength to believe in Christ, because Christ is Redemptor hominis, the Redeemer of man. This was the theme of his first encyclical, and the thread which runs though all the others.
Finally, on a more personal note, I would like to thank God for the gift of having worked for many years with Blessed Pope John Paul II. I had known him earlier and had esteemed him, but for twenty-three years, beginning in 1982 after he called me to Rome to be Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I was at his side and came to revere him all the more. My own service was sustained by his spiritual depth and by the richness of his insights. His example of prayer continually impressed and edified me: he remained deeply united to God even amid the many demands of his ministry. Then too, there was his witness in suffering: the Lord gradually stripped him of everything, yet he remained ever a "rock," as Christ desired. His profound humility, grounded in close union with Christ, enabled him to continue to lead the Church and to give to the world a message which became all the more eloquent as his physical strength declined. In this way he lived out in an extraordinary way the vocation of every priest and bishop to become completely one with Jesus, whom he daily receives and offers in the Church.
Blessed are you, beloved Pope John Paul II, because you believed! Continue, we implore you, to sustain from heaven the faith of God's people. You often blessed us in this Square from the Apostolic Palace: Bless us, Holy Father! Amen.
Karol Jozef 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.
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.
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 said 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 with his father in 1936
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 child: 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 enroll 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 Kudlinski.
During the period of Nazi occupation of Poland, together with his studies that he carried on in secret, he spent four years (October 1940 to August 1944) working in the Solvay chemical factory, directly encountering the social problems of the working world and gathering the precious wealth of experience that he was able to draw upon in his future social teachings, first as Archbishop of Krakow and subsequently as Supreme Pontiff.
Throughout these years his inclination towards the priesthood developed, a path he furthered by attending clandestine courses in theology at the Seminary of Krakow from October of 1942. He was assisted greatly in recognizing his priestly vocation by a lay man, Jan Tyranowski, a true apostle of youth.
It was during the first months of German occupation that Karol Wojtyla came across 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.
In the winter of 1941, Karol's father fell seriously ill and could no longer take care of their apartment, having become bed-ridden. After his day work, Karol used to go to the Kydrynskis, family friends of his, to have supper and then bring his father a plate prepared by his hostess. On February 18, 1941, when 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.
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.
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. 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. He 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.
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.
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.
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. Karol's doctoral thesis was on "The Doctrine of Faith in the writings of St. John of the Cross," and 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").
In Poland, a Communist "People's Republic" had been imposed, and tensions were rising between the Church and the government. 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.
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. 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 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.
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.
Like 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 (I belong entirely to you, and all that I have is yours. I take you for my all. O Mary, give me your heart) 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.
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.
The two Polish Cardinals, Stefan Wyszynski and Karol Wojtyla, in 1974
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.
On May 29, 1967, Archbishop Wojtyla is created a cardinal by Pope Paul VI. 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 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.
Pope Paul VI and Cardinal Wojtyla
When Cardinal Wojtyla heard the shocking news of the sudden death of Pope John Paul I, after thirty-three days of papacy, 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, 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."
John Paul II is responsible more than any other single human for the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. Here are his famous words on Victory Square, Warsaw, on Jthe vigil of Pentecost, June 2, 1979: "Let your Spirit descend. Let your Spirit descend. and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land!" The face of the Polish land indeed changed a few years later, with the creation of the Solidarity trade union, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
The surprise of the election of a Polish Pope 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.'"
Only two 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. Pope John Paul's pontificate is the third longest in history: 26 years and 168 days.
What this Pope has accomplished in almost 27 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 was a very prolific writer, with 14 encyclical letters, 15 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions, and 45 apostolic letters. All of his writings and speeches (over 100,00 pages) fill over 200 volumes.
John Paul II accomplished 102 apostolic journeys in 129 different countries, with over 2,400 official speeches delivered in 580 days spent outside of Italy. He also completed 146 journeys within Italy, and as Bishop of Rome, he has visited 301 of the 334 parishes. His love for young people made him inclined to establish in 1985 the World Youth Days, to which he summoned millions of young people in various parts of the world. No human being in history has drawn so huge crowds: Why so much enthusiasm for one person? It is because he was the Vicar of Christ, represents Jesus on earth, and that by looking at his face, one had a glimpse of God the Father's infinite goodness. Quin Hillyer, in the American Spectator, said he finds it impossible to resist the conclusion that he was "one of the greatest men not just of this age, but of any age in recorded history."
To set them as an example to people, and to show that God, through them, is still active in our world, John Paul II canonized 482 people and beatified 1,338, 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. 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.
In order to promote occasions for a more intense spiritual life for the People of God, he proclaimed the extraordinary Jubilee of Redemption in 1983-1984, the Marian Year in 1987-1988, the Year of the Eucharist in 19941-995, the Great Jubilee of 2000, and the Year of the Rosary in 2002-2003, during which he recommended the addition of five new mysteries of the Rosary — the luminous mysteries: Christ's baptism; his self-revelation at Cana; his proclamation of the kingdom of God; his transfiguration; and his institution of the Eucharist.
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 Jesus, the Virgin Mary and John Paul II himself continue to guide the present Holy Father and hold his hand, until the final triumph of good over evil, of love over hatred, of justice over dishonesty.
Let us conclude with this prayer (collect) taken from the Mass in honor of Blessed John Paul II:
"O God, who are rich in mercy and who willed that the Blessed John Paul II should preside as Pope over your universal Church, grant, we pray, that instructed by his teaching, we may open our hearts to the saving grace of Christ, the sole Redeemer of mankind. Amen."