by Katie Rich
This past Divine Mercy Sunday, April 26, 2014, two 20th century popes were canonized: Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. Though Pope John XXIII has been dead for 50 years, anyone over the age of 9 has lived during part, if not all ,of Pope John Paul II’s papacy. His was the second longest papacy in Church history and he was the first non-Italian successor of Peter since 1523. Even these facts aside, JPII was loved around the world by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and his eventful life is certainly noteworthy.
Karol Josef Wojtyla was born on May 18, 1920 in Wodowice, Poland, a town 35 miles from Krakow. He was named after his father, a Polish army lieutenant, and as a boy was nicknamed “Lolek.” His older sister died before his birth, his mother died when he was eight, and his older brother died when he was 12, so Karol grew up mostly living with only his father. As a boy, he frequently played soccer games at his school, where the teams were divided between Jews and Catholics. Karol would frequently volunteer to play for the Jewish team; this simple exposure to his Jewish neighbors and the childhood friends he made playing soccer in the streets would impact the rest of his life.
Karol and his father moved to Krakow when he was 18, where he attended the Jagiellonian University. He studied a variety of subjects, including 12 different languages, nine of which he used frequently as pope. It was the theater, however, that really intrigued him and he studied playwriting and poetry with great interest.
In 1939 the Nazi occupation began in Poland, effectively closing the university. Karol was forced to work a number of jobs, including as a miner in a limestone quarry, while caring for his ailing father in the little free-time he had. His father died of a heart-attack in 1941, leaving Karol l alone without any immediate family. This sparked a deeper interest in discerning the priesthood, which he actively began to pursue by knocking on the Bishop of Krakow’s door in October 1942. He began studying at the underground seminary run by the Bishop in the face of the Nazi occupation. On August 6, 1944, Karol hid in the basement of his uncle’s house while the Gestapo searched the rooms above. His hiding place saved him from being one of the eight thousand men and boys taken and sent to camps that day.
The German occupation ended the night of January 17, 1945, and the seminarians were able to study openly again. Karol Wojtyla was ordained a priest on All Saints Day 1946. Shortly afterwards he was sent to Rome to study at the Pontifical International Athenaeum Angelicum, and he defended his doctoral thesis about St. John of the Cross on June 19, 1948. His first pastoral assignment was back in Poland, in a town only 15 miles from Krakow, called Niegowic. He later transferred to the parish of St. Florian in Krakow, and taught ethics at his alma mater, Jagiellonian University. He started a small prayer group called Rodzinka, “little family,” that grew from 20 members to over 200 members, known for their annual outdoor trips like kayaking and skiing. He earned his Doctorate in Sacred Theology, studying a combination of Thomism and phenomenology.
On July 4, 1958 Karol was appointed auxiliary bishop of Krakow by Pope Pius XII, and appointed Archbishop of Krakow on January 13, 1964 by Pope Paul VI. On June 26, 1967 Paul VI promoted him to the College of Cardinals. After only a 33 day papacy of John Paul I, another conclave was held, and on October 22, 1978, at the age of only 58, Cardinal Wojtyla was inaugurated pope and he took the name John Paul II as a tribute to his predecessor.
Pope Saint John Paul II is known for his love of both youth and women, and his vigorous travels. He visited 129 countries over the course of his papacy, founded World Youth Day, and was the first pope to visit the White House and meet the then president, Jimmy Carter, in 1979. He also famously returned to Poland and visited Auschwitz. He wrote 14 papal encyclicals and preached “The Theology of the Body.” He died on April 2, 2005, and was beatified on May 1, 2011, only six years later. He was canonized in a joint ceremony celebrated by Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVII, and along with Pope John XXIII, making last Sunday the day of four popes.