Pope Saint John Paul II
October 22, 2014
Karol J. Wojtyla, known as John Paul II since his October 1978 election to the papacy, was born in Wadowice, a small city 50 kilometres from Cracow, Poland, on May 18, 1920. He was the second of two sons born to Karol Wojtyla and Emilia Kaczorowska. He made his First Holy Communion at age 9 and was confirmed at 18. While working in a quarry and a chemical factory, he enrolled in an “underground” seminary in Cracow. Ordained on November 1, 1946, he was immediately sent to Rome where he earned a doctorate in theology.
Back in Poland, a short assignment as assistant pastor in a rural parish preceded his very fruitful chaplaincy for university students. Soon he earned a doctorate in philosophy and began teaching philosophy at Poland’s University of Lublin.
Communist officials allowed him to be appointed auxiliary bishop of Cracow in 1958, considering him a relatively harmless intellectual. He attended all four sessions of Vatican II and contributed especially to its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Appointed as archbishop of Cracow in 1964, he was named a cardinal three years later.
Elected pope in October 1978, he took the name of his short-lived, immediate predecessor. Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. In time, he made pastoral visits to 124 countries, including several with small Christian populations. In his 27 years of papal ministry, John Paul II wrote 14 encyclicals and five books, canonized 482 saints and beatified 1,338 people.
He promoted ecumenical and interfaith initiatives, especially the 1986 Day of Prayer for World Peace in Assisi. He visited Rome’s Main Synagogue and the Western Wall in Jerusalem; he also established diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel. He improved Catholic-Muslim relations and in 2001 visited a mosque in Damascus, Syria. Relations with the Orthodox Churches improved considerably during his ministry as pope.
One of the well-remembered photos of his pontificate was his one-on-one conversation in 1983 with Mehmet Ali Agca, who had attempted to assassinate him two years earlier.