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John Paul II

the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years (1978-2005)

Karol Józef Wojtyla [voy TIH wah] was born in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920. He was the youngest of three children born to Karol Józef Wojtyla, Sr., retired army officer and tailor, and Emilia Kaczorowska Wojtyla, a schooteacher of Lithuanian descent. (An infant sister died before he was born.) The Wojtylas were strict Catholics, but did not share the anti-Semitic views of many Poles. In fact, one of young Karol's playmates was Jewish, and the two boys spent many afternoons at each other's homes. Karol's mother died of heart and kidney problems in 1929, and when he was 12, his older brother, Edmund, died of scarlet fever.

Karol attended Marcin Wadowita high school in Wadowice, where he was an excellent student and athlete. His interests at this time included poetry, religion and the theater. He graduated in 1938. After secondary school, he and his father moved to Krakow, where he enrolled at Jagiellonian University to study literature and philosophy. He was also involved in an experimental theater group and participated in poetry readings and literary discussion groups. He was also said to have been a fine singer. The Nazi occupation forces closed the university in 1939, and Karol had to work in a quarry to earn his living and avoid being deported to Germany. His father died in February 1941.

Karol Jozef as a young man
Karol Jozef as a young man

Call to the Priesthood

Karol began taking courses in the clandestine seminary of Krakow in 1942. He studied, acted and worked in a chemical plant until August of 1944, when he was forced to take refuge in the Archbishop of Krakow's residence; he remained there until the end of the war.

After the Second World War, he continued his studies in the major seminary of Krakow, and in the faculty of theology of the Jagiellonian University. He was ordained into the priesthood by Archbishop Sapieha in Krakow on November 1, 1946. He was subsequently sent to Rome, where he worked under the guidance of the French Dominican, Garrigou-Lagrange. He finished his doctorate in theology in 1948 with a thesis on the subject of faith in the works of St. John of the Cross. During his vacations, he exercised his pastoral ministry among the Polish immigrants of France, Belgium and Holland.

Father Karol took up priestly duties as an assistant pastor in Krakow in 1949. The church he was assigned to was conveniently located next to Jagiellonian University, where he subsequently earned his second doctorate. When the university's theology department was abolished in 1954, the entire faculty removed itself to the Seminary of Krakow, and Wojtyla continued his studies there. Also in 1954, Wojtyla was hired by the Catholic University of Lublin as a non-tenured professor. He shuttled between Lublin and Krakow on the overnight train to teach and counsel in one city and study in the other. He also ran a service that dealt with marital problems -- from family planning and illegitimacy to alcoholism and physical abuse.

Rise Through the Church Hierarchy

Father Wojtyla was appointed to the Chair of Ethics at Catholic University in 1956, and named the Auxiliary Bishop of Krakow on July 4, 1958. In 1960, he published a treatise called Love and Responsibility, which laid out the foundation for what has come to be called "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.

As one of the intellectual leaders at the 1962 Vatican Council II, he took special interest in religious freedom. He was named Acting Archbishop of Krakow when the incumbent died in 1962, appointed Archbishop of Krakow on January 13, 1964, and Cardinal, by Pope Paul VI, on June 26, 1967.

In 1969, the Polish Theological Society published Wojtyla's The Acting Person, a philosophical tract on phenomenology. He discussed this tract during a visit to the United States in 1978. In 1977, he gave a talk at a university in Milan called The Problem of Creating Culture Through Human Praxis.

His Papacy

On October 16, 1978, the Sacred College of Cardinals elected Wojtyla to succeed Pope John Paul I, who had died in September. He became the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years (the last being Adrian VI, elected in 1523), and, at 58, the youngest Pope in 132 years. He took the name John Paul II.

Installation of Cardinal Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II
installation of Cardinal Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II

Church Issues He was absolutely opposed to contraception, abortion and euthanasia, allowing absolutely no room for compromise. He also insisted that church doctrine prohibits the ordination of women.

Human Rights 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.

Solidarity 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.

Youth His love for young people brought John Paul II to establish the World Youth Days, 19 of which were celebrated during his pontificate. His care for the family was expressed in the World Meetings of Families, which he initiated in 1994.

Relations with Other Religions He successfully encouraged dialogue with the Jews and with representatives of other religions, whom he frequently invited to prayer meetings for peace.

Assassination Attempt On May 13, 1981, John Paul was shot twice by a Turk named Mehmet Ali Agca while standing in an open car moving through a large crowd of worshippers in St. Peter's Square. Although seriously wounded in the attack, he later visited Agca in his prison cell and forgave him.

The Pope greets admirers in St. Peter's Square just before being shot (Mehmet Ali Agca's hand is circled).
John Paul II just before being shot

Pope John Paul II is aided by assistants after being shot by Mehmet Ali Agca.
Pope John Paul II after the assassination attempt


Pope John Paul II died in Rome on April 2, 2005. He was interred on April 8. On April 28, Pope Benedict XVI announced that the normal five-year waiting period before beginning the cause of beatification and canonization would be waived for John Paul II.

Written Works

Our God's Brother (1944), by Karol Wojtyla, a play written in Poland during World War II; was made into a film in 1997.
The Jeweler's Shop: A Meditation on the Sacrament of Matrimony, Passing on Occasion into a Drama, by Karol Wojtyla, a play; was made into a film in 1988.
Love and Responsibility
, by Karol Wojtyla, an in-depth philosophical analysis of human love and sexuality.
Person and Act
(1979), by Karol Wojtyla, an in-depth phenomenological work tied to Thomistic Ethics.

The Way to Christ--Spiritual Exercises (1994), conversational presentation of two retreats given ten years apart while Wojtyla was serving in Krakow as Bishop and Cardinal.
The Place Within: The Poetry of Pope John Paul II (1994).

In 1994, John Paul II wrote answers to written questions posed to him by Italian journalist Vittorio Messori. Messori then edited them into Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1995), a book that became a best-seller in many countries.

The Theology of the Body; Human Love in the Divine Plan (1997), a compilation of weekly lectures from 1979 to 1984 to married couples.
Gift and Mystery, On the Fiftieth Anniversary of My Ordination as Priest
Pope John Paul II--In My Own Words (2002), a carefully selected compilation of his words and prayers, was a best-seller.
Roman Triptych (2003), a book of poetic meditations.
The Poetry of Pope John Paul II (2003).
Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way (2004).

A conversational presentation of John Paul II's views on many secular topics was published under the title Memory and Identity--Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium in 2005.

Other Information

Pope John Paul II was the first pope to visit a synagogue, and the first to visit the memorial at Auschwitz to victims of the Holocaust.

The most traveled Pope in history, John Paul II made more than 170 visits to over 115 countries. He also made 38 official state visits, and held 738 audiences and meetings with heads of state, and another 246 audiences and meetings with Prime Ministers.

He was fluent in ten languages -- Polish, Latin, Italian, French, German, English, Spanish, Croatian, Portuguese, and Russian.

Possibly the most athletic Pope in history, as a youth he played soccer as a goal-keeper, took swims in the flooded Skawa River, and enjoyed skiing, hiking, mountain climbing, and kayaking.

On the other hand, Pope John Paul II may also have been one of the most "physically challenged" popes in history. As a youth he had two brushes with death -- he was hit once by a streetcar and again by a truck in 1944. The injuries left him with a slight stoop to his shoulders. As an adult he was beset by 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 that wounded him in the abdomen, right arm and left hand.

In 1983, Marvel Comics published a comic book biography of Pope John Paull II.

See Also

World War II
The Catholic Church in 1978
Ferdinand Marcos

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This page was last updated on February 08, 2019.