The early years: an unhappy childhood
Before he became the Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, Successor of St. Peter, Prince of Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Sovereign of Vatican City and the only pope featured in a comic book — Marvel doing the honor in 1983 — Pope John Paul II was Karol Jozef Wojtyla.
Friends in Wadowice, a town of 8,000 Catholics and 2,000 Jews 35 miles southwest of Krakow, called Wojtyla “Lolek.” Lolek was born in n 1920, the second son of Karol Wojtyla (voy TIH wah) Sr., a retired army officer and tailor, and Emilia Kaczorowska Wojtyla, a schoolteacher of Lithuanian descent.
The Wojtylas were strict Catholics, but did not share the anti-Semitic views of many Poles. One of Lolek’s playmates was Jerzy Kluger, a Jew who many years later would play a key role as a go-between for John Paul II and Israeli officials when the Vatican extended long-overdue diplomatic recognition to Israel.
Kluger told Th he New York Times that he spent many afternoons sitting in the kitchen next to the Wojtylas’ coal stove listening to Lolek’s father tell stories about Greece, Rome and Poland.
Lolek, in turn, went to the Klugers’ 10-room apartment overlooking th
“The people in the Vatican do not know Jews, and previous popes did not know Jews,” Kluger told the Times. “But this pope is a friend of the Jewish people because he knows Jewish people.”
Indeed, Wojtyla became the first pope to visit a synagogue and the first to visit the memorial at Auschwitz to victims of the Holocaust. In ending the Catholic-Jewish estrangement, he called Jews “our elder brothers.”
Not a happy childhood
As a schoolboy, Wojtyla was both an excellent student and an athlete who skied, hiked, kayaked and swam in the Skawa River. But death hovered over the fa amily, making itself felt first when an infant sister died before Lolek was born.
It struck again in 1929 when his mother died of heart and kidney problems, just a month before Lolek’s 9th birthday. And when he was 12, Lolek’s 26-year-old brother Edmund, a physician in the town of Bielsko, died of scarlet fever.
Lolek, himself, had two near-misses with mortality in his youth. He was hit once by a streetcar and again by a truck in 1944 while a college student. Th
“The pope’s youth wasn’t happy,” Father Joseph Vandrisse, a former French missionary and now a journalist, told TIME magazine. “He has meditated a lot on the meaning of suffering.”
Even as an adult he has been beset by physical difficulties, including a dislocated shoulder, a broken thigh that led to femur-replacement surgery, the removal of a precancerous tumor from his colon and an attempt on his life by a gunman whose two bullets wounded the pope in the abdomen, right arm and left hand.
Lolek and his father lived in a Spartan, one-room apartment behind the church, and the father devoted himself to raising his son. He sewed Lolek’s clothes and had the boy study in a chilly room to toughen him and develop his concentration.
“He tried to develop the same discipline in his son that he instilled in his soldiers,” one of Lolek’s childhood friends told People magazine.
But the father didn’t forget about play. A friend remembers entering the Wojtylas’ apartment and finding father and son playing soccer with a
Poetry, religion and theater
Wojtyla’s passions in those early years were poetry, religion and the theater. After graduating from secondary school in 1938, he and his father moved to Krakow where he enrolled at Jagiellonian University to study literature and philosophy.
He also joined an experimental theater group and participated in poetry readings and literary discussion groups. Friends say he was an intense and gifted actor, and a fine singer.
After the Germans invaded Poland, he escaped deportation and imprisonment in late 1940 by taking a job as a stone cutter in a quarry.
A few months later, in February of 1941, Wojtyla’s 61-year-old father died, leaving his dream of seeing his son commit to the priesthood unfulfilled. The pope has said that his father once told him, “I will not live long and would like to be certain before I die that you will commit yourself to God’s service.”
It was another 18 months, however, before Wojtyla began studying at an underground seminary in Krakow and registered for theology courses at the university.
He continued his studies, acted and worked in a chemical plant until August of 1944. But when the Germans began rounding up Polish men, Wojtyla took re
He was ordained in 1946 in Krakow, and spent much of the next few years studying — he earned two masters degrees and a doctorate — before taking up priestly duties as an assistant pastor in Krakow in 1949.
The priesthood years: rebel with a cause
(CNN) — In the early years of his priesthood, Wojtyla served as a chaplain to university students at St. Florian’s Church in Krakow. The church was conveniently located next to Jagiellonian University, where he was working on a second doctorate in philosophy.
When the university’s theology department was abolished in 1954, presumably under pressure from the communist government, the entire faculty reconstituted itself at the Seminary of Krakow and Wojtyla continued his studies there.
He was also hired that same year by the Catholic University of Lublin — the only Catholic university in the communist world — as a non-tenured professor. The arrangement turned Wojtyla into a commuter, shuttling between Lublin and Krakow on the overnight train to teach and counsel in one city and study in the other.
He also founded and ran a service that dealt with marital problems, from family planning and illegitimacy to alcoholism and physical abuse. Time magazine called it “perhaps the most successful marriage institute in Christianity.”
In 1956, Wojtyla was appointed to the Chair of Ethics at Catholic University and his ascent through the church hierarchy got a boost in 1958 when he was named the auxiliary bishop of Krakow.
When the Vatican Council II began the deliberations in 1962 that would revolutionize the church, Wojtyla was one of its intellectual leaders and took special interest in religious freedom. The same year, he was named the acting archbishop of Krakow when the incumbent died.
A genial and charming companion
Wojtyla is, by all accounts, a genial and charming companion, a good listener and not above what Time calls “good-natured kidding.”
“He’s a very brilliant man, and very intelligent and very holy,” says Margaret Steinfels, editor of Commonweal magazine in New York. “I haven’t met him, yet I’m told that he is extremely amiable and affable, and wonderful to talk and dine with.”
He also was shrewd enough not to let his distaste for communism show. His appointment as cardinal in 1967 by Pope Paul VI was welcomed by the government. Wojtyla was considered “tough but flexible” and a moderate reformer, but an improvement on old-school hard-liners who were unalterably opposed to communism and communists.
Wojtyla bided his time, engaging in a strategy that honored Catholic beliefs and traditions while accommodating the communist government.
The Catholic church in Poland served as an important outlet for the expression of national feeling. In his book “John Paul II,” George Blazynski writes that Wojtyla encouraged this expression in a form that did not “provoke a brutal reaction by forces within and perhaps without the country.”
But he also proved to be what Current Biography called “a resilient enemy of Communism and champion of human rights, a powerful preacher and sophisticated intellectual able to defeat Marxists in their own line of dialogue.”
According to George Weigel, who has written extensively about the pope, Wojtyla demanded permits to build churches, defended youth groups and ordained priests to work underground in Czechoslovakia.
Wojtyla was once asked if he feared retribution from government officials.
“I’m not afraid of them,” he replied. “They are afraid of me.”
Learned and scholarly
In spite of all his activities, Wojtyla didn’t slight his scholarly duties.
He wrote a treatise in 1960 called “Love and Responsibility” that laid out the foundation for what Weigel calls “a modern Catholic sexual ethic.”
His second doctoral thesis — “Evaluation of the possibility of Constructing a Christian Ethic based on the System of Max Scheler” — was published that same year.
In 1969, the Polish Theological Society published Wojtyla’s “The Acting Person,” a dense philosophical tract on phenomenology that Wojtyla discussed during a U.S. visit in 1978.
“All sorts of people turned up,” recalls Jude Dougherty, chairman of the philosophy department at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. where the talk was held. “It was extremely well-received by people who were familiar with the subject. And those who weren’t were awed to hear a cardinal who was very learned and very scholarly.”
Weigel wrote that in 1976, when Wojtyla was invited to lead spiritual exercises before Pope Paul VI at a Lenten retreat, his first three references were to the Bible, St. Augustine and German philosopher Martin Heidegger.
In 1977, Wojtyla gave a talk at a university in Milan called “The Problem of Creating Culture through Human Praxis.”
An emotional man
Although he had established himself as a formidable intellectual presence — as well as an able administrator and fund-raiser — few suspected that the Sacred College of Cardinals would choose Wojtyla as the next pope after the death of John Paul I in September of 1978.
But when the cardinals were unable to agree on a candidate after seven rounds of balloting, Wojtyla was chosen on the eighth round late in the afternoon of October 16.
He reportedly formally accepted his election before the cardinals with tears in his eyes. (Associates say the pope is an emotional man, and is often moved to tears by children.)
Wojtyla chose the same name as his predecessor — whose reign lasted just 34 days before he died of a heart attack — and added another Roman numeral in becoming the first Slavic pope. He was also the first non-Italian pope in 455 years (the last was Adrian VI in 1523) and, at 58, the youngest pope in 132 years.
“I was afraid to receive this nomination,” he told the crowd from a balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, “but I did it in the spirit of obedience to Our Lord and in the total confidence in His mother, the most holy Madonna.”
Weigel says that when Wojtyla’s election was announced, Yuri Andropov, leader of the Soviet Union’s KGB intelligence agency, warned the Politburo that there could be trouble ahead. He was right.
The papal years: charisma and restoration
(CNN) — Less than eight months after his 1978 inauguration, Karol Wojtyla returned to Poland as Pope John Paul II for nine cathartic days.
Huge, adoring crowds met him wherever he went and were an acute source of embarrassment to the communist government. Officially, the country was atheistic; it was also suffering from food shortages. The pope added to the authorities’ discomfort by reminding his fellow Poles of their human rights.
“His secretary told me that was the great moment,” says Robert Moynihan, editor and publisher of the magazine Inside the Vatican. “There was a crowd of one million people, and he told them ‘You are men. You have dignity. Don’t crawl on your bellies.’ It was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.”
In the winter of 1999, the pope flew to Mexico and the United States and celebrated Mass for millions of people. His visits to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Des Moines, Chicago and Washington took on the trappings of major holidays.
The cities threw open their arms in a welcome that Current Biography said was of “staggering, unprecedented magnitude.”
“.private citizens, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, flocked by the millions to glimpse the Pope,” it reported. “It was only a few short years ago that such mass forgetfulness of sectarian difference would have been unthinkable (and, politically, suicidal) in the United States.”
Although he draws enormous crowds, sometimes in the millions, whenever he gives public appearances, the pope’s health is slowly deteriorating. In January 2001, one of his doctors publicly acknowledged that the pontiff is suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
For years the pope has shown symptoms of Parkinson’s — shaking and a general unsteadiness — although the Vatican has never officially said he has the disease.
Vibrations in the air
There was more to it than forgetfulness, for John Paul has displayed that charisma during more than 170 visits to over 115 countries over the past 20 years. And as Time noted in naming him Man of the Year in 1994, he generates an electricity “unmatched by anyone else on earth.”
In his book “The Making of Popes 1978,” Andrew M. Greeley offers a close-up of the pope working a crowd: “His moves, his presence, his smile, his friendliness, his gestures .have pleased everyone. He is great with crowds — shaking hands, smiling, talking, kissing babies.”
The Los Angeles Times reported that Poles waited for hours to see the Pope when he returned in 1997. At his appearance, the crowds grew silent, “some falling to their knees and weeping as John Paul parts the crowd on a path to the altar.”
“Such an incredible moment,” Krzysztof Gonet, mayor of Nowej Soli, told the Times. “You can feel the vibrations in the air.”
Not only is he the most traveled pope in history — he speaks eight languages, learning Spanish after he became the pope — he also has been quick to use the media and technology to his advantage.
In the early years of his papacy, he steered the Vatican into satellite transmissions and producing video cassettes. While other popes stayed close to Rome, remote and seemingly unapproachable, John Paul’s wide-ranging appearances — enhanced by an actor’s sense of theater — became worldwide news events.
When the pope visited Cuba in January 1998, hard-line Cuban leader Fidel Castro set aside his drab olive fatigues and put on a business suit to welcome him. Castro also attended a number of functions for the pope and escorted the frail Holy Father with almost touching deference.
The world is his business
Not content with tending merely to church affairs, John Paul has made the world’s business his business — especially in regard to human rights.
“His great hope is to awaken the entire world to the dignity and responsibility of defending human rights,” Cardinal Roger Etchegaray told the Washington Post.
His criticism of such dictators as Alfred Stroessner in Paraguay, Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines encouraged opposition movements that eventually brought down those governments.
His support for the Solidarity movement in Poland — priests concealed messages from John Paul to imprisoned union leaders in their robes — was a key to the downfall of communism in Poland.
When a Turk named Mehmet Ali Agca shot the pope twice in an assassination attempt in 1981, Agca first told the authorities that he was acting for the Bulgarian intelligence service. The Bulgarians were known to do the bidding of the KGB, but Agca later recanted that part of his confession.
It didn’t matter to the pope who was responsible, and later he visited Agca in his cell and forgave him. The astonished Agca said, “How is it that I could not kill you?”
But the pope hasn’t played favorites, and the West has come in for its share of criticism, too. During that first triumphal visit to the United States, he warned his hosts about the dangers of materialism, selfishness and secularism, and suggested lowering the standard of living and sharing the wealth with the Third World.
The message didn’t play well, and still doesn’t. But that hasn’t stopped the pope from insisting that materialism — he regards capitalism and communism as flip sides of the same coin — is not the answer.
“This world,” he says, “is not capable of making man happy.”
Prayer and faith can make man happy, he believes, and he leads by example. Indeed, he is so often in prayer that he is said to make his decisions “on his knees.”
He has been found kneeling on the ground in the middle of winter before a statue, and deep in prayer with his head resting on an altar. Even when not interacting with others, he has been seen moving his lips, apparently in prayer.
‘A culture of death’
The Catholic church John Paul II inherited in 1978 was in shambles. Reforms begun by the Vatican Council II shook the church to its foundation, and the tumult within the church could be compared to the turmoil in the outer world during the 1960s’ era of peace, love and protests over the war in Vietnam.
“The church went through a tremendous crisis,” says Moynihan. “It knocked the church to its knees. It lost one-third of its priests and a tremendous number of nuns.”
John Paul II embarked on nothing less than a restoration of the church, one grounded in its conservative tradition. His rejection of contraception and abortion has been absolute and unbending, and his almost dictatorial manner has not always played well.
People magazine observed that the pope — who has had no qualms about silencing those within the church family who disagree with him — is “more given to self-discipline than self-doubt.”
“It’s a mistake to apply American democratic procedures to the faith and truth,” the pope has said. “You cannot take a vote on the truth.”
Hans Kung, a liberal Catholic theologian who has crossed swords with the pope, told Time, “This Pope is a disaster for our church. There’s charm there, but he’s closed-minded.”
The Economist magazine reported that another troublesome theologian, Bernard Haring, compared the questioning he underwent at the Vatican “to the treatment he once received under Hitler.”
Margaret Steinfels, the editor of the Catholic magazine Commonweal and a more moderate critic of the pope, accuses him of polarizing issues. In his opposition to contraception, abortion and euthanasia, for example, he has accused the industrialized world of fostering “a culture of death.”
“I don’t deny that there are many problems in the U.S. and the West,” she said, “but I don’t think that calling it a ‘culture of death’ and the church the ‘church of life’ is a useful way of dealing with things. I disagree with his metaphors.”
The pope also has confounded Steinfels and many others with his insistence that church doctrine prohibits the ordination of women. In affirming his position in a letter to bishops in 1994, he wrote in uncompromising fashion, “this judgment is to be definitively held by all the church’s faithful.”
‘A man of integrity and prayer’
The pope has often explained himself with dense, closely reasoned and deeply philosophical encyclicals. His encyclicals, letters and other writings fill more than 150 volumes.
“It’s first-rate prose, and work that will last,” says Jude Dougherty of Catholic University in Washington, D.C. “Trouble is, they’re not all that easy to read. His book is a very good document, too.”
In 1994, the pope wrote answers to written questions posed to him by Italian journalist Vittorio Messori. Messori then edited them into “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” a book that became a best-seller in many countries.
Many observers say John Paul’s record is mixed. Although the church has expanded in Africa and Latin America — the latter accounts for about half of the estimated one billion Catholics — it has lost followers in the industrialized world, including Poland.
His inflexibility on issues with international ramifications — birth control in Africa, for example — has drawn strong criticism.
“The church’s refusal of condoms even for saving lives is absolutely incomprehensible,” French journalist Henri Tincq told Time. “It disqualifies the church from having any role in the whole debate over AIDS.”
Nevertheless, said Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the Catholic magazine First Things, “This pope has the church in a stronger position than it’s been in since the Protestant division in the 16th century. When has the Catholic church had as much respect as it does today?”
It is doubtful there has ever been a pope who has so successfully translated his strength, determination and faith into such widespread respect and goodwill. In a world of shifting trends and leaders of questionable virtue, John Paul II has been a towering figure at the moral center of modern life.
“This is not a pope who looks at the public opinion polls,” says Father Thomas Reese, editor of America magazine and author of the book “Inside the Vatican.” “He says what he thinks is right and wrong from conviction. And that’s why people admire him. He’s a man of integrity and prayer, even if they don’t agree with him.”
Pope John Paul’s papacy has not been without conflict.
Buddhist priests boycotted a trip to Sri Lanka after he described their
religion as a largely “atheistic system.” After the visit the Pope tried to make amends,
by declaring he had “profound respect and sincere esteem” for Buddhism,
but the tensions still persisted.
John Paul II is possibly the most athletic Pope in history. In his youth,
he played soccer as a goal-keeper, took daring swims in the flooded Skawa River,
and enjoyed skiing, hiking, mountain climbing and kayaking
Before his ordination as a priest, he was a member of an experimental theater group,
a stonecutter, a published poet, and a chemical company boiler-tender.
“It is the task of the Church, of the Holy See, of all pastors, to fight on the side
of man, often against man himself.”
– From a 1976 sermon given while still a cardinal and the archibishop of Krakow
Pope John Paul II may be the only Pope whose life was portrayed in a comic book.
In 1983, Marvel Comics published a Pope biography.
John Paul II was by papal standards a comparatively young man when he was
elected in 1978. He was only 58, making him the youngest Pope in 132 years.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
“A nation that kills its own children has no future.”
-The pope’s reaction to the liberalization of the abortion law in Poland in 1996