St. John Paul II, Pope
The school of suffering
Karol Wojtyła – “Lolek” to his family and friends – learned a great deal from suffering. The boy, born in 1920 in Wadowice, Poland, lost his mother when he was nine. When he was twelve, his elder brother died. He enrolled at university in Krakow at the age of nineteen to study his passion, Polish literature, but a year later Germany invaded Poland, the university was closed, and the professors deported to concentration camps.
In the hungry, bleak years of the German occupation, Karol, the aspiring actor who staged clandestine theater performances with his friends, came to know the world of manual laborers, the hardness of their lives as well as their great dignity, becoming a laborer himself in a stone quarry and a chemical plant.
There was light even in this dark time. His father, a man of profound prayer, taught him how to invoke the Holy Spirit. A friend, the tailor Jan Tyranowski, showed Karol the beauty of the interior life. Loss struck again: Karol’s father died in 1941, leaving the young man alone in the world. But with this new grief came illumination: “God was calling me to be a priest.”
Priest and bishop
Karol studied for the priesthood in Krakow’s clandestine seminary and was ordained in 1946. His bishop noted the young priest’s intellectual and spiritual gifts and sent him to complete a doctorate in Rome. After some time as pastor of a parish and a university chaplain, Fr. Wojtyła became a professor of moral theology and ethics at Krakow and Lublin, where a group of students often accompanied him on hikes in the mountains.
There, far from the prying ears of Poland’s communist regime, the young people discussed philosophy, theology, the Christian life, and often, their marriages with “Wujek,” “uncle” – the title they gave to Fr. Wojtyła on their outings to disguise the fact that he was a priest. It was experiences such as these, Wojtyła would later say, that made him “fall in love with human love.” They would become the living basis for his “theology of the body,” or theology of human love.
On one of these outings, in 1958, Wojtyła received news that he would become a bishop. The communist authorities had approved his appointment, believing that a “philosopher and poet” would not cause them much trouble. They would soon learn otherwise. This young bishop whom they supposed to have his head in the clouds was a powerful preacher who began annually celebrating Christmas midnight Mass in a field for the inhabitants of Nowa Huta, a worker’s neighborhood that authorities had deliberately built without a church.
Soon great events were taking place in the Church: a new ecumenical Council, convoked by Pope John XXIII to help the Church to carry out her mission in the modern world. From 1962-1965 Bishop Wojtyła participated extensively in Vatican Council II, contributing to the drafting of the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes and to the document on religious freedom, Dignitatis humanae. In 1967 he became a Cardinal.
“Be not afraid!”
In 1978, Albino Luciani was elected Pope John Paul I, but died a month later. The shocked Cardinals entered a conclave to elect a pope for the second time in a year. Thousands of people’s attention was riveted on St. Peter’s when the new pope’s name was announced, then people turned to one another in confusion: Who? A non-Italian? For the first time in 455 years?
The new Pope “from a far country” had been prepared for his task through his own suffering and the suffering of his people. He knew what it was to face fear. So, on October 22, 1978, at the inaugural Mass of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II cried out to the whole world, “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!” To Christ in whom alone the human being understands himself, to Christ the Redeemer of Man.
This Pope from afar would go far, traveling some 1,100,000 kilometers around the world to show people the love of this Redeemer of Man, and to invite them to let go of their fear.
On May 13, 1981, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, the Pope would find a different way to show the world what it means to face fear, armed only with the love of God, the power of forgiveness, and the protection of the Mother of God. During that day’s papal audience, an assassin aimed and fired. St. Peter’s Square erupted into panic as the Pope fell. He came close to death, saying later that the Mother of God, to whom he had entrusted his pontificate, had protected him on her feast day; he made a pilgrimage to Fatima to place the bullet in her crown. He made another pilgrimage, too: to prison, to forgive the “brother who shot me” face-to-face.
A tireless defender of human dignity
John Paul II was a prolific author and tireless preacher, always convinced that the human person is “the way of the Church” and that “the splendor of truth shines forth … in a special way, in man, created in the image and likeness of God” (Veritatis Splendor 1). The Pope who had experienced two forms of totalitarianism firsthand was outspoken whenever he encountered any ideology that threatened the dignity of the human person, from dictatorships to Marxism to unbridled capitalism. The Solidarity movement in his own country drew strength from his words and example, which helped precipitate the fall of communism throughout Eastern Europe.
From the beginning of his pontificate, John Paul II sought to heal the divisions between the Christian churches, especially with his Orthodox brothers and sisters. He was convinced that the wound of division was contrary to the will of the Lord and weakened Christian witness.
In everything he did as a defender of human dignity and shepherd of the People of God, John Paul II was conscious of his task of leading the Church and the world to a celebration of the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ and, through this, into the new millennium. The Great Jubilee of the year 2000 was a privileged moment when believers praised the Holy Trinity for the Redeemer who “became our companion on life’s path … in the journey we make together … towards the new heaven and the new earth.”
“…to my Father’s house”
In the 1990s, John Paul II was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. So began the final chapter of his pontificate and mission, in which the energetic preacher who had traveled the world had one more “homily” to give, not with words but, as he gradually lost the capacity to speak, with silence. As his successor Pope Benedict XVI observed, this “master of words” still had, not to say, but to show that “the Lord redeemed us with his cross, with the passion, as an extreme act of love.” In the last years of John Paul II’s pontificate, he consoled the sick with his sickness; in the last months – including a mute blessing given to the crowds from his window – he showed what it meant to live the realities of suffering and death in Christ, as part of his Body.
On April 2, 2005, the vigil of the feast of Divine Mercy, John Paul II died. His last words were whispered, “Let me go to my Father’s house.” Some 3 million people came to Rome for his funeral, and millions more followed on television. They had heard when this Pope had told them not to be afraid, and they understood that in those last years and months, he had told them this in the most profound way possible. In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI beatified his predecessor, and in 2013, Pope Francis declared him a saint.