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Pope John Paul II: A Light for the World


by John Thavis, Rome Bureau Chief, Catholic News Service

To Catholics, he is universal shepherd.

To world leaders, he can bring moral support
or stinging criticism.

Non-Christians around the globe have
welcomed him as a holy guest.

Poor nations consider him their advocate
in the halls of power.

And for nearly everyone, he’s been a voice of
conscience on issues like war, abortion and
the death penalty.

The world knows Pope John Paul II in different dimensions: manager, missionary, statesman and prophet. His message is not always easy and his words are not always welcome. But it’s hard to imagine a more influential figure on the global scene over the last twenty-five years.

If his pontificate seems a perfect match for our age, perhaps it’s because he experienced its joys and trials firsthand – as no previous Pontiff has.

The path to the papacy was not a simple one for Karol Wojtyla. As a youth in southern Poland, he studied at the university, acted in a clandestine theater, wrote poetry and read philosophy, played goalie on his soccer team, split stone at a quarry and worked in a chemical factory. Only then did his vocation to the priesthood come into focus.

“I had positive experiences in many settings and from many people, and God’s voice reached me through them,” the Pope said in his 1996 book, Gift and Mystery.

The Pope’s early life was marked by personal hardships and shadowed by national tragedies.

Born May 18, 1920, in the small town of Wadowice south of Krakow, he lost his mother, Emilia, at age nine. Her death was an event that stayed with him, and acquaintances say it prompted his lifelong spiritual devotion to the Virgin Mary. One of his first youthful poems, “Over This, Your White Grave,” was dedicated to his mother’s memory.

Three years later his only brother, Edmund, a physician, died of scarlet fever. And at age twenty he lost his father, a military officer who had raised his son with love and firmness. The future Pope would sometimes wake in the middle of the night and find his father praying on his knees. At his death, friends say Karol knelt for twelve hours in prayer at his father’s bedside.

The Pope’s former schoolmates describe him as friendly but pensive, an athletic youth who excelled in academics and spent a lot of time in church. They noticed the intense way he prayed – a habit of deep meditation that remained with him for life. One companion good-naturedly called him an “apprentice saint.”

“Even as a boy he was exceptional,” said Rafat Tatka, a neighbor who knew the young boy as Lolek, a nickname that translates as Chuck. Growing up, the Pope was especially protective of his Jewish friends.

As a teenager, he was already showing an appetite for philosophy and an amazing talent for languages. In 1938, he began working toward a philosophy degree at the University of Krakow, and was an active member of speech and drama clubs.

All that was interrupted by the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, which devastated the country and left an indelible impression on nineteen-year-old Karol Wojtyla. A priest later described how Wojtyla arrived at the cathedral when the first German bombs started to fall and served Mass amid the howl of sirens and the blasts of explosions.

With official schools closed during the German occupation, he helped set up an underground university and the clandestine “Rhapsodic Theater,” which met in members’ apartments. To make ends meet, he also took a job at the local Solvay quarry and chemical factory. More than fifty years later, he described how a fellow laborer was killed by flying rock, a “sense of injustice” emanating from his lifeless body. The Pope

himself was nearly killed when he was hit by a truck near the plant and remained unconscious for several hours.

Karol Wojtyla had women friends, especially in the theater circles. Some thought that’s why his vocation came relatively late in life.

But as he once explained it, a girlfriend “wasn’t the problem.” What delayed his entry to the priesthood was his great passion for literature, philosophy and drama – but the war helped change that, too.

He started noticing that some of his friends had disappeared, killed in war or seized in the night by Nazi troops. It haunted him.

“Any day I could have been picked up on the street, at the factory or at the stone quarry and sent to a concentration camp. Sometimes I asked myself: ‘So many people at my age were losing their lives, why not me?’” he wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination.

He gradually came to feel that he was spared for a higher reason, part of a divine plan to bring something good out of wartime Poland.

“I know it wasn’t just chance,” he said. If his Polish friends and neighbors were being sacrificed on the “altar of history,” he would dedicate his life to God and the Church. The decision was a blow to his student companions, but he hoped they would understand in time.

He entered Krakow’s clandestine theological seminary in 1942, a risky step under the Gestapo’s watchful eyes. Always drawn to the mystical and contemplative, at one point he considered joining the local Carmelite order instead of the diocesan priesthood. But his cardinal told him: “Finish what you’ve begun,” and the local Carmelite director is said to have turned him away with the words: “You are destined for greater things.”

Four years later he was ordained, just as Poland was passing from the nightmare of Nazi occupation to the ideological vise-grip of a new Communist regime. Father Wojtyla was sent to study at Rome’s Angelicum University, where he did coursework in ethics and wrote a thesis on Saint John of the Cross, a sixteenth-century mystic.

Back in Poland in 1948, the young priest got his first assignment to the rural village of Niegowic, twenty miles outside of Krakow. In what would become typical fashion, he walked there through the fields during harvesttime – and kissed the ground when he arrived. A year later, he became pastor at Saint Florian Parish in Krakow, devoting much of his ministry to young people. He taught them, played soccer, took them on hikes and invited them to his house for discussions.

Father Wojtyla turned to academics again, earning a second doctorate in moral theology. In 1953, he began commuting to Lublin University to teach. By the time he reached his mid-thirties, he had published dozens of articles and several books on ethics. But he also made time to write poems and plays.

Father Wojtyla was an outdoorsman, and he loved to take groups of students hiking, skiing, camping and canoeing in the hills of southern Poland. He took off his collar and told the youth to call him “uncle” because it was illegal for priests to sponsor such outings under Communism.

He was on a kayaking trip in 1958 when he was named an auxiliary bishop of Krakow—at age thirty-eight, he was the youngest bishop in Poland’s history. He shunned the trappings of the new position, however, and left his humble apartment for the more comfortable bishops’ residence only after friends moved his belongings one day when he was out of town.

In 1964 he was named Archbishop of Krakow, and three years later he became a cardinal, one of the youngest in the Church. He spent much of his first two years in office commuting to Rome for the final session of the Second Vatican Council, where he helped draft the landmark document Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World).

Cardinal Wojtyla was very much in sync with the council’s push to tear down the walls between the church and the world and make faith an everyday experience. But that did not mean turning his back on the church’s traditional teachings – far from it.

In the mid 1960’s, he helped advise Pope Paul VI on sexual morality issues, and he eventually helped prepare the controversial encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), which upheld the Church’s teaching against birth control.

Respected in the Vatican’s inner circle but virtually unknown to the rest of the world, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope on October 16, 1978. He was the Church’s first non-Italian Pontiff in 455 years, and most people didn’t recognize his name when it was announced in Saint Peter’s Square—they thought he was African.

But his fluency in Italian won the crowd over that night, and got his papacy off to a running start. Within months, he had taken trips around the globe, held airborne press conferences, issued an encyclical on redemption, met with world leaders and opened a new chapter in ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox.

This hurricane pace was slowed by a would-be assassin’s bullets on May 13, 1981. Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish terrorist, shot the Pope as he was riding in his jeep in Saint Peter’s Square. The Pontiff was rushed to a Rome hospital and underwent hours of surgery; the Pope later deposited the bullet fragments in the crown of a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, whose feast day is May 13, and said he owed his life to Mary. Two and a half years after the shooting, he visited Agca in his Italian prison cell in a remarkable act of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The Pope was soon back in full swing, in a papacy that has rewritten the record books. He’s logged more than 700,000 miles in trips to nearly 130 countries, including such remote spots as Azerbaijan, with a Catholic population of 120.

Many credit his political activism—and his morale-boosting trips to Poland—for helping to bring down European Communism in 1989. In a historic meeting with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, the Pope nurtured the glasnost reform policy that would eventually lead to the break-up of the Soviet empire.

In other parts of the world, he prodded dictators and pleaded for human rights. At the same time, he lectured liberation theologians and warned bishops and priests against confusing the Gospel with political ideology. His social encyclicals challenged the architects of the globalized free-market economy to narrow the gap between rich and poor in the world.

Despite some people’s misgivings about Church teachings like birth control and the all-male priesthood, he received warm welcomes in his seven trips to the United States, where he was cheered by half a million young people in Denver in 1993.

Pope John Paul II has carried the pro-life banner proudly. Throughout the last decade he has urged bishops and lay Catholics to fight abortion and euthanasia, saying the “slaughter of the innocents” must be stopped. He’s also argued that moral justification for the death penalty is practically non-existent in the modern age, and his interventions have sometimes helped save the lives of death-row inmates. Not everyone agrees with the Pope’s public pronouncements, but popularity has never been his goal.

“The Pope becomes persona non grata when he tries to convince the world of human sin,” he said with a dose of realism in 1994.

Yet more than any previous Church leader, he has earned near-universal respect for highlighting moral and ethical values, and for speaking out on behalf of the millions of people who have little or no voice in global affairs.

Battling fatigue and illness in later years, the Pope has kept up a remarkable string of initiatives inside the Church as well. He used the Holy Year in 2000 to celebrate every aspect of the faith, apologize for Christians’ historic misdeeds and map out a pastoral strategy for the new millennium.

He broke down interfaith barriers when he visited a Jewish synagogue and a Muslim mosque, and has made pilgrimages to Orthodox countries where no pope had ever set foot. He convened unprecedented “prayer summits” in the Italian hill town of Assisi, and orchestrated interreligious condemnations of terrorism.

Increasingly, he has emphasized to his own flock that prayer is powerful and that personal holiness can change the world.

In a typical blend of the traditional and the new, he recently reformed the praying of the rosary, formulating five new “mysteries of light.” And he’s canonized more than 470 new saints—including lay people from various walks of life—to illustrate his message that true faith is faith in action.

In ways big and small, he has left a lasting image on his Church: in written documents and dramatic gestures, in doctrinal firmness and heartfelt prayer, and by naming nearly all the cardinals who will one day choose his successor. Many young Catholics who have never known another pope call themselves part of the “John Paul II generation.”

Despite his frailty, the Pope intends to keep bringing the light of the Gospel to the great issues of the twenty-first century. It’s a ministry he carries out with the halting steps of an old man, and the determination of an Apostle.

From: John Paul II: A Light for the World, edited by Sister Mary Ann Walsh, RSM. © 2003 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Inc., Published by Sheed & Ward. All rights reserved. For more information on this publication, go to