Life History of Pope John Paul II


Pope John Paul II in Kerala

Pope John Paul II in Kerala



“The priest is a man of the word of God, a man sacrament, a man of the mystery of faith”. Pope John Paul II has defined priesthood in terms of above statement. The inspiring words of his encyclicals, above all his life itself inspires us to priesthood. Pope John Paul II, who born in 1920 and answered the call of Jesus has done miraculous deeds in the history of Catholic Church. He was interested to be titled really as the servant of the servants of god. In this chapter we may try to have a short journey though his life, his works, and the personality of the pope which may help to know the inspirational words in the next chapters.

1. Life History of Pope John Paul II

Wadowice with its 15000 inhabitants and surrounded by fields of Rye, in the city where Karol Wojtyla was born on May 18, 1920. The city is located in southern Poland on the River Skawa at the foot of the Beschidi Mountains, some 40 kilometers west of Krakow and 30 kilometers from Auschwitz. When Karol was born, Poland had only recently regained its independence after 123 years of domination by a foreign power and it was struggling to regain territory on its eastern border.1.1. Early Years


Karol’s parents were people of modest means. His father also named Karol was a junior officer in the polish army. Karol’s mother Emila Kaczorowska a Lithuanian and a former school teacher, used to eke out her pay by sewing. The infant was baptized on June 20, and given two names, along with Karol he received the name Jozef. The family immediately began calling the boy by the affectionate nickname “Lolek”. Lolek had an elder brother Edmund who was born on August 27 1906. A handsome young man, he became a fine student and active athlete, remembered for his exceptional charm. From 1924 through 1929, Edmund Wojtyla studied at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, where on May 28, 1930 he was awarded the degree doctor of medical science.


On September 15, 1926, Karol Wojtyla began the first grade at the local elementary school. The curriculum included polish, religion, arithmetic drawing, singing and according to his report cards, games and exercises and handicrafts. On April 13, 1929 while Lolek was completing the third grade his mother, who had often seen ill, died of kidney failure and congenital heart disease. Much has been written about the long term impact of his mother’s early death on Karol Wojtyla. It is frequently suggested that Wojtyla’s Marian piety is displaced maternal affection.

1.1.1. Studious student

 At the age of eleven Lolek moved on to the public high school, the Wadowice boys’ gymnasium. That same year Karol also becomes an altar boy. Karol also developed a close relationship with the religion teacher; father Kazimierz Figlewicz, who saw in the boy’s behavior ‘the shadow of an early sorrow’ as well as almost limitless talent and cleverness. The single source of great and ongoing joy in Karol’s life was his brother, Edmund, whom Karol idolized. In 1930 Karol was taken by his father for the ceremony conferring a medical degree on him brother Edmund began his career as a doctor at the children’s clinic of Krakow, and then worked as a resident in a hospital in Bielsko. Lolek’s outgoing confidence and optimism seemed to return when he spend his happiest childhood hours alone with his brother. So there could have been no cruder blow than the one that struck without warming a December 5, 1932 Karol was told that his brother had died at the hospital of scarlet fever contracted from a patient he had desperately tried to save. Later as Pope he remembers his brother; “my brother’s death probably affected me more deeply than my mother’s, because of the peculiars circumstances which were certainly tragic and because I was more gown up”. 1.1.2. Jagiellonian University

When Karol, father and son left Wadowice for good in 1938, to settle in Kracow, they came to a city that was Poland’s jewel, at treasure house of art and architecture, a cultural centre. Karol got admission to the Jagiellonian University founded by King Casimir and Queen Jadwiga in 1374. Karol’s choice of subjects for him university degree was polish language, literature and philosophy. At the University was an experimental theatre group, studio Dramatycyne and Karol joined the group and became immensely successful as an actor. Besides the theatre, he develops a love for poetry.

Happy days for Karol were then here again as they had been in his childhood in Wadowice before they were shattered by the deaths of his mother and brother. However they were not to last for long. His University studies were to be rudely interrupted by the approach of the Nazi Jackboots that were overrunning Central Europe. On Sept. 1st 1939 he attached Poland and two days later the Second World War began. On September 6th Cracow fell to Germans and in the afternoon of Sept. 8th they reached Warsaw. The Jagiellonian University was closed and 200 members of its staff packed off to concentration camps where 17 of them died. To be a student was to be marked out for death on deportation to an unknown place or forced labour in Germany.

It is good to know from Pope itself what the situation during the period “But let them go back to 1sept. 1939. The outbreak of the war radically changed the course of my life. True, the professors of the Jagiellonian University tried to start the new academic year in the usual way, but lectures lasted only until 6 November 1939. On that day the German authorities assembled all the teachers in a meeting which ended with the deportation of those distinguished scholars to the Sachsehausesn concentration camp. The period of my life devoted to the study of polish languages and letters then came to an end, and the period of the German occupation, I began, in the autumn of 1940 to work as a labour in a stone quarry attached to the Solvay chemical plant. This was at Zakrzowek, about half an hour from my home in Debniki”

“The mangers of the quarry, who were poles tried to spare in student from the heaviest work. in my case they made me the assistant to the rock blaster him because he would occasionally say things like; Karol you should be a priest you have a good voice and will sing well then you will be all set …”

Karol Wojtyla’s stint as a quarry to worker gave rise in caster years to some of him most emotive and memorable poetry. These sentiments he was to express in more prosaic from in his encyclical “Laborem Exercise” he said “The proper subject of work continues to be man; it is the quality of the human effort that matters”. In one way or another University’s pre-war faculties continued to maintain an active life. Karol enrolled as a second year student of polish philosophy.

Death was an ever present reality in occupied Krakow. Before his twenty first birthdays Karol Wojtyla had seen a lot of it. February 18, 1941 began like any other day during his period. After working at the quarry Karol stopped and picked up dinner and some medicine for his father. But as he entered the hours found that his beloved father has gone to father’s house. “At twenty I had already lost all the people I loved. I was not old enough to make my first communion when I lost my mother. My brother Edmand died from scarlet fever where in a virulent epidemic at the hospital where he was starting as a doctor after my February 1941, I gradually become aware to my true path” Pope remembers later.1.1.3. Answering to the call

He was twenty one and had come to a turning point of him life. All around him was wretchedness and misery, and the face that in the middle of the night there would be a knock on the door. Karol had played his part in the resistance. Karol has never fully explained his decision to become a priest for his interest with theater. But finally the conflict in Karol’s mind between a stage carrier and the priestly calling was ultimately resolved in favour of the latter. One day he took his friend Fr. Malinsky to the Wavel, where he said he wanted to see Fr. Figlewicz whose maser he had served in Wadowice soon Fr. Figlewicz introduced to Cracow. The Archbishop of Cracow. The archbishop agreed to admit him as a candidate for the priest food.

1.2. Influences on His Priesthood

It is good to have a quick reading on the influence on Karol’s vocation as it shaped the future pope.

1.2.1. Family

“My preparation for the priesthood in the seminary was in a certain sense preceded by the preparation I received in my family. Above all I am grateful to my father, who becomes a widower at an early age. Sometimes I would wake up during the night and find my father on his knees just as I would always see him kneeling in the parish church. His example was, in a way my first seminary, a kind of domestic seminary”.

1.2.2. The Solvay Plant

“Later after my early years, the stone quarry and water purification facilities in the bi-carbonate plant at Brock Falecki become my seminary; this was not a mere pre-seminary as at Wadowice. For me at that point in my life, the plant was a true seminary. I began to work in the stone quarry in September 1940, a year later I passed to the plant’s water purification facility. Those were the years when my final decision matured”.

1.2.3. Parish

Thinking on the role of Debinky parish and the Salesians who worked there, pope speaks spontaneously: “I believe that the presence of the Salesians played an important role in the formation of my vocation, I learned the basic methods of self- formation which would later be confined and developed in the seminary programme. This increased my interest in Carmelite spirituality”.

1.2.4. The Marian Thread

“Naturally in speaking of the origins of my priestly vocation I cannot over look its Marian thread…. Mary does bring in closed to Christ; she does lead us to him, provided that we live her mystery in Christ”.1.2.5. Brother Saint Albert

Brother Albert has a special place in the history of polish spirituality. For me he was particularly important, because I found in him a real spiritual support and example in leaving behind the world of art, literature and the theatre, and in making the radical choice of a vocation to the priesthood”.

1.2.6 The Experience of the War

 “My priestly vocation took definitive shape at the time of the second world war. The tragedy of the war had its effect on my gradual choice of a vocation. It helped me to understand in a new way the value and importance of my vocation. In the face of this spread of evil and the atrocities of the war, the meaning of the priesthood and its mission in the world became much clearer to me”.

1.3. We Have a Priest

On November 1, 1946, Karol was ordained to the priesthood in Sapieha’s private chapel. Ordination ceremony was a very private affair. The following day, the Feast of all Souls, Karol celebrated his first Mass in the crypt of the cathedral at the after of St. Leonard. He offered the Mass for his mother, father and brother who joined him from heaven. Priesthood marked the end of one decisive chapter in Karol Wojtyla’s life and the beginning of another.

Soon after his ordination, Fr. Karol Wojtyla departed for Rome for higher studies. He enrolled at the Angelicum and after residing for a brief period with the Pallottines, he moved to the Belgian college. Karol spent two years in Rome. In June 1948, he successfully defended his thesis on “the Doctrine of faith according to St. John of the cross”. Karol Wojtyla could not receive his doctoral degree until he submitted the required number of copies for the lack of money. When he returned to Poland, he delivered his thesis before the theology faculty of Jagiellonian University. He received the degree of doctor of theology in December 1948.

1.3.1. As a Good Pastor

Fr. Wojtyla’s first assignment was to serve as associated pastor in the village of Niegowic. Let us listen him for a few words; “it was harvest time, I walked through the fields of grain with the crops partly already reaped and partly still waving in the wind. When I finally reached the territory of Niegowic parish, I knelt down and kissed the ground. It was a gesture I had learned from St. John Vianney”. Young father Wojtyla stayed less than a year in Niegowic. In August 1949 he was called back to Krakow and assigned to St. Florian’s church in the university quarter. Stalin’s death in 1953 affected many lived in Poland. The theology department at Jagiellonian University in Krakow where Wojtyla had only recently become professor of social ethics was closed. He was promptly offered the chain of theology at the catholic university of Lublin.

1.3.2. Bishop Wojtyla and Vatican II

On July 4, 1958 Pope Pius XII named Karol Wojtyla auxiliary bishop of Krakow. Wojtyla was 38 years old. A year later, discussion began discussion began to arose on the topics to be covered in the upcoming Second Vatican Council. He made some responses to the preparatory commission for the council and they show, he had a keen perception of what was necessary for renewal in the church. Bp.Wojtyla left for Rome to attend the council on October 5, 1962. He intervened eight times during the council, submitted 13 written texts and three more in conjunction with other council fathers. John Paul recalls his days at Second Vatican Council; “At the beginning of my participation in the council, I was a young bishop. I remember that at first my seat was right next to the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica. From the third session on- after I was appointed Archbishop of Krakow (January 18, 1964) – I was moved closer to the altar”. At the end of the council, Archbishop Wojtyla returned to Krakow with the realization that he had participated in an event without precedent.

In 1967 Wojtyla became a cardinal and immediately caught the attention of the Communist Secret Service. As a cardinal, Wojtyla did not change his manner of life. He became well known toward the end of Second Vatican Council. He became secretary to the synod of bishops and had personal touch with Pope Paul VI. During his eleven years as a cardinal Karol Wojtyla was becoming more widely known. He performed a variety of impatient functional, such as his participation in the synods of Bishops held in Rome, his election to the secretariat of the synods, his role relater at the Extra ordinary Synod of the Bishops of Europe and at the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia, his preached retreat for the Vatican curia; and his frequent visits to groups of polish emigrants as well as the meeting in Germany in 1978. These were the principal occasions through which the name and face of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became known throughout the world and to the members of the College of Cardinals. Later, when the second conclave of 1978 took place, these acquaintances would remember him during the election process for a new Pope.

1.3.3. We have a Pope.

In Rome cardinal Wojtyla participated at the funeral rites of John Paul I and he stayed for the conclave, which lasted only two days. The Collage of cardinal elected cardinal Wojtyla as the new Pope. He was the first Polish Pope in history and it had been 455 years since the last non-Italian ascended to the throne of St. Peter. Moreover Wojtyla was the first Pope to come from a communist country.

During his first year as pontiff he said “no” to abortion, divorce, contraception, women priests, homo-sexual unions, married priests and pre-martial sex, attracting the wealth of all those groups who were fighting for those various freedoms.

The leaders of the various Communist countries realized that the Pope’s popularity was detrimental for them and so they decided to oppose it by spreading false information. On May 13, 1981, Ali Agca, tried to kill the Pope as he entered audience as he did every Wednesday. He was shot down and taken immediately to Gemelli hospital. He was safe in the hands of God and survived without much delay. After this shocking event his pontificate took a new course. Pope became a more perceive, charismatic figure.

His mission was an all consuming act of love for the world; Protestants, Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, atheists etc, came under his influence. In 1986 he visited the synagogue in Rome. This was an act which no pontiff had ever done before. In 1993 he established the first official diplomatic relation between Israel and the Holy See. Historic hallmarks were his apostolic journeys to the Eastern European Countries, to Cuba, Sarajevo, Beirut, the World Youth days, the great Jubilee of the year 2000. He presided over 147 beatification ceremonies, in which he beatified 1338 people and canonized 482 saints. He presided over 9 consistories, in which he created 231 cardinals and presided over 6 plenary meetings of the College of Cardinals.

What especially characterized John Paul’s Pontificate, however was his journey’s. This “pilgrim Pope” made 146 pastoral visits in Italy alone and as Bishop of Rome visited 317 of the current 333 parishes of that city. He made 104 Apostolic Journey’s around the world. He visited 130 different countries, 615 different localities and pronounced 2400 speeches. This pilgrim activity was continued right to this end.

1.3.4. We May Meet in Heaven

In 2003 he marked his 25th year as Pope making him the longest serving pontiff of the 20th century. By then John Paul was struggling with increasing poor health. Visibly suffering from the slurred speech and trembling hands of Parkinsons disease. In February 2005, he had a tracheotomy after being taken to Gemelli hospital with breathing problems. He received the last rites on March 31, after suffering septic shock and a cardio circulatory collapse brought on by urinary tract infection. He died in his apartments at the Vatican on April 2. Pope John Paul II passed away with his heart filled with serenity and deep trust in God, even amid the pains that racked his mortal body. Then it was the end of ever showing sun in the Catholic Church.

1.3.5 Beatification Process

Inspired by calls of “Santo Subito” (Make him a saint now) from the crowds gathered during the funeral, Pope Benedict XVI, John Paul’s successor began the beatification process, by passing the normal restriction that five years must beatification process can begin. In an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, Camillo Ruini, Vicar, General of the Diocese of Rome and the one responsible for the cause of canonization cited, “exceptional circumstances” which suggested that the waiting period could be waived on 28May 2006. Pope Benedict XVI said Mass before an estimated 900,000 people in John Paul II’s native Poland and started that he hoped canonization would happen “in the near future”. In January 2007, Stainslaw cardinal Dziwisz of Krakow announced that the key interviewing phase of the beatification process was nearing completion. On 8 March 2007, the Vicariate of Rome announced that the diocesan phase of John Paul’s cause for beatification was at an end. The cause then proceeded to the scrutiny of the committee of the Vatican’s congregation for the causes of saints, who will conduct an investigation of their own.

2. Major Works of Pope John Paul II


As pope, one of John Paul II’s most important roles was to teach people about Christianity. The documents of Pope John Paul II reiterate the time tested catholic teaching on various important aspects of church’s faith and life. He published 14 Encyclicals, 14 Apostolic Exhortations, 7 Apostolic constitution, 28 Apostolic letter and even 5 books without mentioning the thousands of speeches

2.1. Encyclicals

Many of his encyclicals are profound with meaning and all influenced the way of catholic faith. In “The splendor of the Truth” (Veritatis Splendor), he emphasized the dependence of freedom on the truth. He warned that man giving himself over to relativism and skepticism. In “Fides et Ratio” Pope promoted a renewed interest in philosophy and an autonomous pursuit for truth in theological matters. John Paul II also wrote extensively about workers and the social doctrine of the church, which he discussed in three encyclicals. Other encyclicals include “Evangelium Vitae” and “Ut Unum Sint” is promoting the brotherhood of having same faith. Redemptoris Missio, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis are other encyclicals which show his social missionary thirst and social concerns.

2.2. Apostolic Exhortations

Pope John Paul has written 14 Apostolic exhortations each having a preferential theme for study. Ecclesia in Asia, Ecclesia in America, Ecclesia in Africa, Ecclesia in Europe, etc shows his concern for the churches in different continents. He also wrote on bishops, consecrated life, role of laity, role of catechism and especially on the role of Christian family. Pastores Dabo Vobis which we may discuss later shows his desire for mature formation of priests.

 2.3. Apostolic Constitutions

The servant of the servants of God wrote 7 Apostolic constitutions which had a great impact. It consists of “Sapientia Christiana” “Pastor Bonus” “Fidei Depositum” etc. He gave new visions on the catechism of the Catholic Church for the promulgation of the new code of Canon law etc.

2.4. Apostolic Letters

Apostolic letters by Pope John Paul II had a remarkable value in the modern world. It consists of “Mane Nobiscum Domine”, “Misericordia Dei”, “Novo Millennio ineunte”, Ordinatio sacerdotalis” “Teritio Millennio Adveniente” “Orientale Lumen” “Mulieris Dignitatem” etc.

3. Major Contributions of Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II is universally considered one of the great leaders of the 20th century. The personality and the contribution he made to the world stands unique. In this section we may try to evaluate a few of his traits and contributions.

3.1. Apologies

The importance or uniqueness of Pope John Paul II must be traced back to his apologies. He apologized to Jews, Galileo, Women, Victims of the inquisitions, Muslims slaughtered by the crusades and almost everyone who had suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church through the years. As Pope he officially made public apologies for over 100 of wrong doings including;

The legal process on the Italian scientists and Philosopher Galileo Galilee on 31 October 1992.

Catholics’ involvement with the African slave trade on 9 August 1993.

The church hierarchy’s role in burning at the stake and religious wars that followed the Protestant Reformation on May 1995.

The injustices committed against women on 10 July 1995.

The inactivity and silence during the Holocaust on 16 March 1998.

3.2 Role in the fall of Communism

 John Paul II has been credited with being instrumental in bringing down communism in Eastern Europe by being the spiritual inspiration behind its downfall and a catalyst for a peaceful revolution in Poland. The Pope started the chain of events that led to the end of communism. Mikhail Gorbachev once said “The collapse of the Iron curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II. In February 2004 Pope John Paul II was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize honouring his life’s work in opposing communist oppression and helping to reshape the world.

3.3. World Youth Day

World Youth Day is a popular catholic faith themed international youth event initiated by Pope John Paul II, had a special relationship with catholic youth and is known as “The Pope for Youth”. He established world youth day in 1984 with the intention of bringing young Catholics from all parts of the world together to celebrate the faith. These week-long meetings of youth occurs every two or three years, attracting hundreds of thousands of young people who go there to sing, party, have a good time and deepen their faith.

3.4. On Liberation Theology

John Paul II officially condemned the liberation theology which had many followers on South America through the teachings of congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in 1984 and in 1986. In his travel to Managua, Nicaragua in 1983 John Paul II harshly condemned what he dubbed the “popular Church”

3.5. On Evolution

On 22 October 1996, in a speech to the pontifical academy of sciences plenary session at the Vatican, Pope John Paul II declared the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin as factors and wholly compatible with the teachings of Roman Catholic Church. Pope said; “If taken literally, the Biblical view of the beginning of life and Darwin’s scientific view would seem irreconcilable. In Genesis the creation of the world and Adam, took six days. Evolution’s process of genetic mutation and natural selection has taken billions of years according to scientists”. Although accepting the theory of evolution, John Paul II made one major exception –the human soul, “If the human body has its origin in living material which pre-exists it, the spiritual soul”

3.6. On Homosexuality

While taking a traditional position on sexuality, defending in church’s moral opposition to marriage to for same-sex couples, the pope asserted that persons with homosexual inclinations possesses the same inherent dignity and rights as everybody else. The pope also reaffirmed the church’s existing teaching on gender in relation to transsexuals, made clear that transsexual could not serve in church positions.

3.7. Relationships with denominations and other Religions

 Pope John Paul II travelled extensively and came into contact with believers from many divergent faiths. He constantly attempted to find common ground, both doctrinal and dogmatic. At the world Day of Prayer for peace held in Assisi on 27 October 1986, more than 120 representatives of different religion and Christian denomination spent a day together with fasting and praying.

3.7.1. Anglicanism

Pope John Paul II had good relation with the Church of England. He preached in Canterbury with friendship and courtesy. John Paul II’s historic ecumenical effort with the Anglican Communion was realized with the establishment of our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church in co-operation with Archbishop Patrick Flores San Antonio.

3.7.2. Eastern Orthodox Church

In May 1999, John Paul II visited Romania on the invitation from patriarch Teoctist Arapasu of the Romanian Orthodox Church. This was the first time a Pope had visited a predominantly Eastern Orthodox country since the Great Schism in 1054. Pope visited another heavily Orthodox area Ukraine on 23-27 June 2001 at the invitation of the President of Ukraine and bishops of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Roman Catholic Church in Ukraine. The Pope spoke to leaders of the All-Ukrainian council of churches and religions organizations, pleading for “Open, tolerant and honest dialogue”. For a number of years John Paul II actively sought to facilitate dialogue and unity stating as early as 1988 in “Euntes in Mundum” that church has two lungs, it will never breathe easily until it uses both of them.

3.7.3. Judaism

Relations between Catholicism and Judaism improved during the pontificate of John Paul II. He spoke frequently about the church’s relationship with Jews. In 1979, he became the first Pope to visit the Nazi Auschwitz concentration camp on Poland, where many of his countrymen, mostly Polish Jews had perished during the German Nazi occupation. He also became the first pope known to have made an official papal visit to a Synagogue of Rome on 13 April 1986. In January 2005, John Paul II became the first Pope in history known to receive a priestly blessing from a Rabbi. Immediately after the death of the Pope, the Anti-defamation league issued a statement that Pope John Paul II had revolutionized Catholic – Jewish relations saying that “more change for the better took place in his 27 year papacy than in the nearly 2000 years before”.

3.7.4. Buddhism

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, visited Pope John Paul II eight times more than any other single dignitary. The pope and the Dalilama often shared similar views and understood similar plights both coming from people affected by communism.

3.7.5. Islam

On 6th May 2001, Pope John Paul II became the first catholic Pope to entered and prayed in an Islamic mosque. Respectfully removing his shoes, he entered the Umayyad Mosque, a former Byzantine era Christian church dedicated to John the Baptist. He kissed the Quran in Syria, an act which made him popular amongst Muslims and more unpopular amongst traditionalist Catholics. John Paul II over saw the publication of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” which makes a special provision for Muslims therein, it is written, “the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims, these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful god, mankind’s Judge on the last day”.


“He was one of the most eminent figures of our epoch. His words and actions had an enormous influence on the situation in the Republic of Poland, On Europe and on the whole world. Since he was a tireless upholder of peace dialogue and reconciliation, he helped to pull down many of the barriers that divided people and religions. The content of his magisterium reached everyone, brought serenity to hearts and moved consciences. For millions of people, the Pope was a true authority and an authentic spiritual guide”.

This is the message send to Rome of the occasion of hearing the death of Pope John Paul II on 2rd April 2005, by the president of Poland, Alekasander Kwasniewaki. Such high was the influence of the Pope John Paul II. This “light of the world” has small beginning in the small village and had it suffering to the path of highness. 27 year of his pontificate was remarkable for the given a lovely, acceptable face for the church of Jesus Christ. Thus his life inspires much to be in communion with Catholic Church and above all to triune god, who has shown. His unending love and care for human beings.

 Fr Kochumundanmalayil Sijo



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