Karol Wojtyla grew up in the southern Polish village of Wadowice, near Krakow. He was the son of an army sergeant. He had a strict, devout upbringing. His mother died when he was nine and his brother died from scarlet fever before he was 14. As a young man, Karol excelled at sports, including soccer and skiing.
He had a love of acting and the theatre. He was a 19 years old teenager in 1939 when German tanks invaded Poland. He experienced the suppression and cruelty of Hitler’s Nazi regime and saw his friends sent off to concentration camps.
World War II and the Nazi occupation forced Karol Wojtyla to work as a labourer in a marble quarry. His father died when he was 20 years old. He was left alone. He studied theology from 1942 and was forced into hiding in 1944 following an attack on religious teaching. Continuing his studies after the war, he was ordained a priest at age 26 yrs in 1946.
He was a special man to his parish often taking them on hikes into nature that he so loved. He was promoted to archbishop of Krakow when he was 44 yrs. Three years later he was a cardinal. Karol Wojtyla’s election as Pope in 1978 stunned the Catholic world. Not one expert had tipped the 58 year old bishop of Krakow for the top position.
Taking the name John Paul II, the new pontiff, signaled a new era in Catholic affairs. He stood against Poland’s Communist regime and that had brought him respect. But, he was not part of the Vatican “in-crowd” and, above all, he was the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years. He went on to become one of the most familiar faces in the world.
His papal odyssey covered more than 120 countries and he earned himself the reputation of an international fighter for freedom. The Pope traveled constantly. After his appointment, he quickly established himself as an instantly recognizable figurehead to the world’s largest Christian community as well as to the world’s non-Christian community. He was dynamic and approachable. He visited more than 100 countries and is estimated to have effectively circled the globe 27 times.
However, his desire for closeness with people almost led to his death. In St. Peter’s Square 1981, he was shot and seriously wounded by Mehmet Ali Agca – a Turk. After recovery, he visited and forgave his assassin.
The Pope was beset by physical illness beginning with a tumor being removed from his colon in 1992. He then dislocated his shoulder in 1993. He broke his femur in 1994 and had his appendix removed in 1996. In 2001 an orthopedic surgeon confirmed what had been suspected for some time that the Pope was suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
On 14 March 2004, the remarkable life of the pontiff reached another milestone when his papacy became the third-longest in the history of the Catholic Church. The Pope marked his 84th birthday in May of that year, but despite deteriorating health he refused to let up his grueling schedule of appearances and foreign trips. On April 2nd, 2005, the Pope’s sick body finally set his soul free as he lay in his Vatican apartment. John Paul II joyfully passed on his incredible prophetic journey and mission on earth complete.
Regardless, millions of people worldwide have loved Pope John Paul II and continue to do so beyond his death – people that are not only Catholics, but also Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews and Atheists – people that completely disagree with the Church’s policies love him no less, and the young, they adore him. Loved by all ages, loved by all faiths, a master of communication with great humor, and a prophet will be beatified on 1st of May 2011.
– – – written by Br. John Singarayar SVD