Pope John Paul II


Pope John Paul II, the late bishop of Rome and head of the Roman Catholic Church, was born Karol Józef Wojtyla (voh-TEE-wah) May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, Poland.

When Wojtyla ascended the papal throne in 1978, he became the first pope from a Slavic country and the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. During his pontificate, Pope John Paul II traveled extensively, covering well over the distance traveled by all other popes combined.

Pope John Paul II is best known for his outreach to those of other faiths, especially Jews and Muslims, his strong personal devotion to the Virgin Mary, and his controversially conservative teachings on personal and sexual morality.

Early Life

Wojtyla's mother, Emilia Kaczorowska, was convent-educated and religiously observant. She died when he was only eight years old. His father, Karol Senior, was a lieutenant in the Polish army and described as intelligent and moral. From 1920 to 1939, between the defeat of the Soviet Red Army and the German invasion, Poland enjoyed a brief period of independence. The population of Wadowice consisted of about 8,000 Catholics and 2,000 Jews. There was little anti-Semitism in Wadowice, but Auschwitz was built in a town only 15 miles northwest of the future pope's hometown.

When he was 12, Wojtyla lost his second family member, his elder brother. Friends remember him responding with the words, "Such was God's will." Despite his early experiences of tragedy, Wojtyla was by all accounts an outgoing and socialable young man, though with a serious side. "He was a natural lead in school plays and is reported to have helped school friends with their homework without allowing them to copy his. He excelled in school, played soccer, and under his father's guidance lived a disciplined, routinely religious life." {1}

Life Under Nazi Occupation

After graduating as class valedictorian, Wojtyla attended university in Krakow (1938-39), where he studied Polish literature, participated in amateur drama, and wrote poetry. His academic career was interrupted when, on September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland. In addition to Jews, professors, priests, and other Slavic cultural leaders were deported to concentration camps, for Slavs were considered one of the inferior races.

To avoid deportation, the future pontiff continued classes secretly and worked for Solvay, a chemical manufacturer considered essential to the Nazi war effort. His work, which involved such tasks as breaking rocks in a quarry, laying track, shoveling limestone, setting dynamite charges, and tending machinery, would make him the only pope in modern times to have been a laborer.

In his spare time, Wojtlya wrote nationalistic plays and joined the Rhapsodic Theater, an underground resistance group aimed at keeping Polish culture and morals alive. A tailor who also headed a youth ministry, Jan Tyranowski, introduced Wojtyla to the writings of Saint John of the Cross. The saint's teachings and Tyranowski's successful work among youth together convinced Wojtlya that the church might be a more effective vehicle for improving the world than Polish theater.

On February 18, 1941, Karol Wojtlya, Sr. died in the apartment he shared with his son. The future pope prayed by the body all night. By the fall of 1942, Wojtyla was attending illegal seminary classes. Another upheaval occurred in August 1944, when Hitler demolished Warsaw and Nazi troops swept through Krakow, seizing all able-bodied men. Wojtyla went unnoticed in his basement apartment, and his seminary leader was able to persuade chemical plant managers to make his name disappear from the list of missing personnel.

Priest, Professor and Poet

In 1945, German occupation replaced by Soviet occupation, and on November 1, 1946, Wojtyla was ordained into the priesthood. After two years of study in Rome, where he completed a doctorate on the theology of Saint John of the Cross, Wojtyla returned to Krakow. Over the next decade, Wojtyla studied, wrote poetry, and lectured in philosophy and personal and sexual ethics. Completing a second doctorate, he became full professor at University of Lublin, and was a spiritual mentor to a group of friends with whom he kayaked and camped.

His first book of nonfiction was published in Polish in 1960, titled Love and Responsibility. The book explored the graces available in conjugal sexual relationships, and was considered radical to those who understood the Catholic Church to teach that sex was for procreation only.

Rising Through the Ranks

Wojtyla impressed church leaders with his ability to conduct a successful ministry despite communist restrictions. On July 4, 1958, Pope Pius XII made him a bishop of Krakow, and on December 30, 1963, during the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI appointed Wojtyla archbishop of Krakow. The archbishop became familiar with the workings and issues of the church during the Council, and after its conclusion was appointed to the Pope's Commission for the Study of Problems of the Family, Population, and Birth Rate. His work probably influenced the famous encyclical Humanae Vitae of 1968, which rejects artificial contraception.

Wojtyla was made a cardinal of the Catholic Church on June 28, 1967, at the age of 47. As cardinal, he insisted a church be built in the new industrial suburb of Nowa Huta, Poland, placing a cross in the ground where the church would one day stand. He held masses at the site in defiance of communist authorities and continually requested permission to hold religious processions in the street. He was finally allowed to build his church in 1977. He was refused use of the media, so he and fellow church leaders traveled extensively and learned to communicate effectively with crowds. In 1976, he was invited by the then-pope to give the annual Lenten sermons in the Vatican. His sermon explored Catholicism's moral stance in a world of immorality.

Assuming the Chair of Peter Pope Paul VI died in August 1978. The College of Cardinals elected Albino Luciani of Venice as the new pope. Luciani took the name John Paul to honor his predecessors John XXIII and Pope Paul VI. But only 34 days after his election, Pope John Paul I died, and the College of Cardinals returned to conclave to elect a new pope. Karol Wojtyla made a good choice in the midst of the controversy that swirled after the Second Vatican Council: he was conservative in matters of church discipline, yet progressive in accepting the reforms of the Council. His youth (at 58, he was the youngest pope of the 20th century) was also seen as an opportunity to attract young people to the church.

The Pontificate of John Paul II Karol Wojtyla was elected to the papacy on October 22, 1978, taking the name John Paul II to honor his predecessors. He began his extensive travels at once, journeying to Mexico (January 1979), Poland (June 1979), Ireland and the United States (October 1979), and Turkey (November 1979). In each place, he attracted large crowds and a great deal of media interest. One of his primary messages was the need for the church to be involved in politics (especially in the areas of human rights, national independence and religious freedom).

The pope himself was very active in political issues, especially in his attempts to undermine communism's hold on Eastern Europe. He supported Poland's Solidarity movement, while always reminding his former countrymen to remain nonviolent and move slowly.

The pope's political involvement came to a head on May 13, 1981, when he was shot and nearly killed by a young Turkish gunman, Mehmet Ali Agca. Although a conspiracy was never proved, it was widely believed the attempt had been orchestrated by the Soviets to undermine the Solidarity movement. But the pope rapidly recovered and continued to visit and encourage the people of Poland, and the movement persevered. He is credited with contributing to the final collapse of the U.S.S.R. came in 1991.

Pope John Paul II may also have played a significant role in the weakening of several dictatorships, including Brazil's João Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo, the Philippines' Ferdinand E. Marcos, Haiti's Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier, Parguay's Alfredo Stroessner, Chile's Augusto Pinochet, and even Chun Doo Hwan of non-Catholic South Korea, all of whom relinquished rule within a few years of papal visits. He is also credited with averting a war between Chile and Argentina in 1979, and with serving as a third-party moderator between Cuba and the U.S.

After the end of the Cold War, John Paul's attention shifted from international politics to improving relations between world religions. The pope had already taken significant steps in this direction, most notably his convening of leaders of all major religions to Assisi, Italy, to pray for world peace in 1986. This was a controversial move, and was cited by the traditionalist archbishop Marcel Lefevre as one of the main reasons he left the church and ordained his own bishops, creating a formal schism within Catholicism.

The pope had also held numerous meetings with Jewish and Muslim religious leaders throughout his pontificate. He sponsored the "Colloquium on Holiness in Christianity and Islam" in Rome in 1984 and spoke to 80,000 Muslims in Morocco in 1985. February 2000 saw history's first meeting between a pope and Sunni Islam's highest religious authority, the Sheikh al-Azhar, at the sheikh's office in Cairo.

Also significant for interreligious relations has been Pope John Paul's frequent apologies for past sins of Catholics and his encouragement of other Catholics to do the same. He himself has denounced and apologized for the past "brutalities and injustices of racism, violence, and prejudice-including those committed during the Crusades and against indigenous peoples, women, suspected heretics, non-Catholic Christians, Muslims, and Jews."

Surely influenced by his close proximity with Nazi anti-Semitism as a youth, the pope has also sought to mend the longtime distrust between Christians and Jews. He has called the Jews "our [Christians'] elder brothers in faith," has declared anti-Semitism a sin, and became, in 1986, the first pope to ever enter the synagogue in Rome. In 1994, he held a Holocaust memorial Passover concert in the Vatican, to which Roman Jews and Holocaust survivors were invited. In 1998, the Vatican document We Remember: A Reflection on the 'Shoah' reviewed various aspects of Catholic anti-Jewish prejudice that contributed to the Holocaust.

These efforts at reconciliation have been generally well-received by Israelis and Jewish leadership. In March 2000 in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said to the Pope, "Blessed are you in Israel." During the same visit, John Paul met with Muslim leaders at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and then prayed alone at the Western Wall. Israel's minister for communications stated that "a 2,000-year-old account is now closed."

The pope has also worked to improve relations between Catholics and other Christian sects. A 1995 papal encyclical entitled Ut unum sint ("That They May Be One") reviews 30 years of ecumenical relations and invites non-Catholic churches to join the pope in rethinking the role of the papacy in world Christianity.

In addition to his political and ecumenical efforts, Pope John Paul II has made significant theological contributions. He issued a new Code of Canon Law in 1983, its first revision since 1917, and published a new Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992, the first revision in over four hundred years. He has addressed the tension between religion and science directly, stating his approval of its search for truth and affirming that Catholicism must not deny the findings of science.

The 1998 encyclical Fides et ratio ("Faith and Reason") emphasizes the importance of reason in meaningful faith, and reflects the pope's high regard for his own Pontifical Academy of Sciences. In a homily delivered in his first year as pope (published as Original Unity of Man and Woman), he stated that some stories in Genesis, including that of Adam and Eve, are to be understood as inspired metaphor. The pontiff has also affirmed the importance of care for the environment, calling its destruction a grave sin and "a sign of real contempt for man."

The Pope's Declining Health

On February 1, 2005, the pope was taken to the Gemelli Hospital in Rome suffering from acute inflammation of the larynx and laryngo-spasm, brought on by a bout of influenza. The Vatican reported the following day that his condition had stabilized, but he would remain in the hospital until fully recovered. The pope appeared in public on 6 February to deliver the final lines of the Angelus blessing in a hoarse voice from the window of his hospital room. He missed the Ash Wednesday ceremonies in St Peter's on 9 February for the first time in his 26-year papacy, and returned to the Vatican on 10 February.

On 24 February 2005 the Pope began having trouble breathing and also had a fever, and he was rushed back to the Gemelli Hospital, where a tracheotomy was successfully performed. An aide to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said that John Paul was "serene" after waking up following the surgery. He raised his hand and attempted to say something, but his doctors advised him not to try speaking.

The Pope gave 'silent blessings' from his hospital window on Sunday 27 February and Sunday 6 March, and is said to have spoken in German and Italian during a working meeting with Cardinal Ratzinger in his 10th floor suite of the Gemelli on Tuesday 1 March. Cardinal Ratzinger told international press: "the Pope spoke to me in German and Italian. He was completely lucid. I brought the Holy Father greetings from the plenary of the Congregation for the divine cult which is meeting at this moment in the Vatican. The Holy Father will be working on material which I gave him today. I am happy to see him fully lucid and mentally capable of saying the essential matters with his own voice. We usually speak in German. The details are unimportant - he spoke of essential matters".

On 8 March, it was announced that the Pope was scheduled to give his Urbi et Orbi blessing on Easter Sunday, 27 March. The other ceremonies of the Easter Triduum were to be led by cardinals.

During the Angelus of Sunday 13 March The Pope was able to speak to pilgrims for the first time since he was readmitted to hospital. Later that day he returned to the Vatican for the first time in nearly a month. On Palm Sunday (20th March) the Pope made a brief appearance at his window to greet pilgrims. He was cheered by thousands of the faithful as he silently waved an olive branch. It was the first time in his pontificate that he could not officiate at Palm Sunday Mass. He watched it on his TV in his apartment overlooking St. Peter's Square.

On 22 March, there were renewed concerns for the Pope's health after reports stated that he had taken a turn for the worse and was not responding to medication.

On 24 March, Colombian Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo performed the rite of the washing of the feet, in the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica. The cardinal stood in for Pope John Paul II at a Holy Thursday ceremony at the Vatican. He said the ailing Pontiff was 'serenely abandoning' himself to God's will. The 84-year-old Pope, whose health is precarious following throat surgery last month, watched the service on television from his Vatican apartments.

On 27 March, Easter day, the Pope appeared at his window in the Vatican for a short time. Angelo Cardinal Sodano read the Urbi et orbi message while the Pope blessed the people with his own hand. He tried to speak but he could not.

On 31 March, the Pope developed a "very high fever caused by a urinary tract infection," but was not rushed to hospital, apparently in accordance with his stated wishes to die in the Vatican. Later that day, Vatican sources announced that the Pope had been given last rites (anointing of the sick), the first time that pope had received the sacrament since the 1981 assassination attempt on his life. It is unclear if the Pope received the Apostolic Pardon as well.

On 1 April, the Pope had been fitted with a second feeding tube in his nose to help boost his nutritional intake as a result of his fever. Reports out of the Vatican early that morning reported that the Pope had suffered a heart attack, but remained awake. Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls denied the reports of the heart attack, but said the Pope had suffered a "cardiocirculatory collapse" and called the Pope's condition "very serious."

At around 10:30 UTC (3:30 EST) a Vatican spokesman gave a further briefing on the Pope's health and confirmed that the Pope has received last rites. He refused to be taken to the hospital, and met with his closest associates. He also requested that he be read the meditations said on the Stations of the Cross a few days before.

At approximately 17:00 UTC the Italian news sources claimed that Pope John Paul II lost consciousness. At least one medical center stated that there is no more hope for him, according to MSNBC.

The Vatican published a press release at 17:00 UTC (11:00 EST) saying the Pope's kidneys stopped functioning. The ANSA news agency reported around 17:30 UTC that he lost consciousness. Several Italian media agencies reported the Pope's death at 18:20 UTC, 13:20 EST, but soon afterwards, the Vatican denied the pope's death. TV Sky Italia reported that his heart and brain were functioning.

Pope John Paul II passed away on April 2, 2005, at 19:27 UTC, 13:37 EST.


  1. "John Paul II." Encyclopaedia Britannica Premium Service (2004).
  2. "Pope John Paul II." Wikipedia (2005).

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Title Pope John Paul II
Last UpdatedJanuary 31, 2021
URL religionfacts.com/john-paul-ii
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MLA Citation “Pope John Paul II.” ReligionFacts.com. 31 Jan. 2021. Web. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021. <religionfacts.com/john-paul-ii>