The first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years, and the first Polish pope ever, Pope John Paul II was even more of an outsider than John XXIII. Born Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice in 1920, he lost his mother when he was eight years old, with his brother Edmond dying of scarlet fever less than five years later.
Fifty years after his ordination as a priest, John Paul II described his father as ‘a man of constant prayer’ who taught him that the mystery of the Church is larger than the Church’s mere structure and organization; his father’s example, he said, was a kind of domestic seminary.
An excellent student and a gifted actor, Karol moved to Krakow with his father in 1938, throwing himself into undergraduate life in Krakow’s Jagiellonian University where he immersed himself in the study of philology ad languages. When the Nazis invaded Poland the following year, however, the University was shut; classes continued in a clandestine fashion, with Karol working in a local quarry and then the Solvay chemical factory; Karol’s meagre salary was the only source of income for him and his father.
Long nights at the factory gave Karol lots of opportunities to read, and brought him to a new appreciation of the Marian piety so strong in Polish Catholicism. Reading the works of St Louis-Marie Grignon de Montfort he came to realise that ‘true devotion to Mary’, the first disciple, was always focused on Christ, and offered a special path into ‘the mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption’.
In 1940, Karol met Jan Tyranowski, a tailor and mystic who led the ‘Living Rosary’ youth ministry in Krakow’s parish of St Stanislaw; the parish had been run by the Salesian fathers and had an extensive youth ministry, but this was driven underground by the Nazis and as the occupying forces stripped the parish of clergy the last priest asked Tyranowski to begin training a group of young men to lead the parish’s youth ministry in the absence of clergy. Karol became one of the youth leaders in this organisation and was profoundly influenced by Tyranowski who helped him deepen his spiritual life and introduced him to the writings of the sixteenth-century Spanish Carmelite mystic St John of the Cross.
Whilst continuing in his studies and growing more immersed in drama than ever before, writing as well as acting in the clandestine Rhapsodic Theatre, Karol began to feel drawn to the priesthood, and in 1942 joined Krakow’s underground seminary led by Archbishop Adam Stefan Sapieha; the seminary reopened after the war, and Karol continued his studies there and in the Jagiellonian University’s theology school. He was ordained in 1946 and then went to Rome to earn his doctorate in theology, studying under the famous Dominican Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, who directed Karol’s dissertation on St John of the Cross’s understanding of faith. In this thesis Karol – now Father Wojtyla – stressed the personal nature of how we encounter God, an encounter in which we become more truly ourselves; Wojtyla saw such an encounter as the centre of every Christian life, not merely an experience reserved for mystics.
Wojtyla returned to Poland in 1948, becoming a curate in a small village just east of Krakow, and then in the city itself. A dynamic young pastor, he was also appointed a chaplain at the university where he undertook further studies and in 1953 earned a second doctorate, this time having examined the possibility of basing Christian ethics on Max Scheler’s ethical system; Wojtyla concluded that while it could not be done, Scheler nonetheless offered important lessons. He was subsequently appointed to professorships of moral theology and ethics in Krakow’s seminary and in Lublin’s theology faculty.
In 1958, Wojtyla was appointed auxiliary bishop of Krakow and was ordained on 28 September. Pius XII died eleven days later, making his authorisation of Wojtyla’s consecration the last historically significant event of his nineteen-year papacy. In 1962 the senior priests of Krakow elected Wojtyla apostolic administrator of the archdiocese until a formal successor was installed.
In October 1962 Bishop Wojtyla set out for Rome to attend the Second Vatican Council which he was sure would be a watershed for the Church. Believing the central question facing the Council to be a crisis of humanism, Wojtyla attended and actively participated in every session of the Council, making especially important contributions to Gaudium et Spes, the constitution on the Church in the modern world, and to the debate on religious freedom. For Wojtyla, who in 1964 was appointed Archbishop of Krakow, the lynchpin of the Council was Gaudium et Spes 22:
It is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear […] all this holds true, not for Christians only, but also for all men of good will in whose hearts grace is actively present.
This was complemented by Gaudium et Spes 22, which said that ‘Man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself’. All his life Wojtyla retained a deep sense of giftedness, and believed that the ‘law of the gift’ was humanity’s basic dramatic structure, offering the only real road to fulfilment.
As result of his efforts, Vatican II had a better reception in Poland than almost anywhere else. Appointed Cardinal in 1967, in 1970 Wojtyla called an archdiocesan Synod, a miniature pastoral Council which would share the Council’s experience of collegiality with the archdiocese. The Synod began meeting in 1972 and continued for seven years, producing 400 pages of documents and bringing the experience of the Council alive for tens of thousands of engaged Catholics, 500 study groups reading the Council documents with Wojtyla’s Sources of Renewal as a commentary.
In 1978 Wojtyla returned to Rome to take part in the Conclave that elected Albino Luciani, the Patriarch of Venice, as Pope John Paul I; within a few weeks, following John Paul’s sudden death, he was back for a new Conclave, and this time, on 16 October at the age of 58, he was elected to succeed John Paul, taking the name John Paul II. He was in no way seen as a candidate before the conclave began, and only became one because the Italians were divided between liberals and conservatives.
Seeing the papacy above all as a teaching office, John Paul decided against coronation with the papal tiara; rightly or wrongly, it was associated with the notion of the papacy as an office of power, and John Paul believed it was by rights an office of service. Never a fan of bureaucracy and administration, John Paul dedicated his papacy to teaching and evangelism.
This dedication could so easily have come to nothing: on 13 May 1981, a Turkish would-be assassin named Mehmet Ali Ağca shot John Paul in St Peter’s Square. Although critically wounded the Pope survived, attributing his survival to the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima, whose feast day it was. He asked people to pray for Ağca, who he forgave, meeting with him in 1983; a friendship grew between the two men, with Ağca writing to John Paul as late as February 2005, just weeks before the Pope’s death.
It evaluating John Paul’s evangelistic efforts, the numbers speak for themselves. ‘Bringing the papacy to the people,’ in the words of Cardinal Sean O’Malley, he visited 317 of Rome’s 322 parishes, and made 146 pastoral visits in Italy, with 17.6 million people attending his Wednesday audiences in Rome. He took part in 104 international apostolic journeys to 129 countries, seeing himself as a bishop for the whole world; Paul VI may have been the first global pope, but John Paul II developed this aspect of the papacy to an unprecedented degree, addressing many millions around the world, including five million at 1995’s World Youth Day in Manila, and possibly being seen in the flesh by more people – some estimate 300 million – than anyone who has ever lived. Not since the days of St Peter had the holder of the keys been such a reality for ordinary Catholics.
John Paul’s written output was extraordinary: he wrote 14 encyclicals, 15 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions, and 45 apostolic letters, as well as five books; he also oversaw the completion of the Code of Canon Law envisaged by John XXIII, and following the extraordinary general session of the Synod of Bishops to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Council’s completion, arranged for the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In doing this he sought to realise John XXIII’s vision of an authentically evangelical Church, capable of speaking and spreading God’s love in the modern world.
His Wednesday audiences for the first five years of his papacy were largely dedicated to teasing out what has become known as his ‘Theology of the Body’, a celebration of sexual love between married couples as an image and expression of God’s self-giving love.
Convinced the modern world was pervaded by a ‘culture of death’ in which the lives of the most vulnerable were deemed without value, John Paul spoke repeatedly about human dignity and the wrongheadness of a world that – possessed of limited resources – thought contraception, abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty better remedies than a just distribution of the world’s resources.
Wanting to unite the world’s religions in proclaiming God’s goodness and the dignity of humanity, John Paul became in 1986 the first pope to pray with non-Christians, gathering in Assisi for the World Day of Prayer for Peace with Christians of all shades, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and more. While this gathering alarmed some within the Church, others were galvanised by it. The Czech priest Tomáš Halík, for instance, winner of the 2014 Templeton Prize, in Night of the Confessor: Christian Faith in an Age of Uncertainty describes the Assisi gathering as sign that perhaps the twentieth century was not simply ‘a century of historical darkness and suffering, but also a moment of change and hope’:
‘The photograph of the pope, holding hands with the Dalai Lama in the company of representatives of Judaism, Islam, and other world religions in front of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi […] is evidence of the hope that maybe we are beginning to realize that we have to learn to live together aboard the single frail vessel.’
Designating 2000 as the Great Jubilee, John Paul led the Catholic Church into its third millennium through a series of public acts of repentance for the Church’s sins over the centuries, culminating in a visit to Jerusalem’s Western Wall, where John Paul posted a prayer of penitence for Christian atrocities, and pledged brotherhood to ‘the people of the Covenant’.
By this point, however, John Paul was sick and frail, his body racked by Parkinson’s disease, but the first Polish pope refused to step aside; when asked why he wouldn’t resign, his answer was simple: ‘Because Jesus didn’t come down off the cross.’
Sick and monitored by a team of consultants from 31 March 2005 on, John Paul spoke his final words, ‘Allow me to depart to the house of the Father,’ and slipped into a coma on 2 April, dying that night, the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, at the age of 84. His had been the third-longest papacy on record, and one that shapes the Church to this day.