Continuing from last week’s post, today we’re going to look at the second of the newest saints in the Roman Catholic church who were canonized on April 27th. Last week we looked at the life and ministry of “Good” Pope John XXIII and today we’ll look at another pope who worked to bring the Catholic church into the modern era.
Today’s saint is Pope John Paul II.
Pope John Paul II was born Karol Józef Wojtyła on May 18, 1920 in the Polish town of Wadowice. In school, Pope John Paul took an interest in theater along with being very athletic and often playing soccer. At one point a Cardinal came to visit the school and Pope John Paul II was asked to give a welcoming speech. The Cardinal was very impressed by the speech and asked Pope John Paul II’s teacher if he was interested in joining the priesthood. The Cardinal was disappointed to learn that Pope John Paul II’s interests were mainly in theater.
Pope John Paul II would continue his studies in a university in Krakow in 1938. At the university he began focusing more on philosophy and literature. He maintained his interest in theater by joining an experimental theater group called “Studio 38” where he performed and worked as a playwright. During this time Pope John Paul II also had to participate in military training due to the looming war. However, Pope John Paul II refused to ever pick up and fire a weapon. It was also during his studies that he learned nearly 12 different languages.
When the Nazis occupied Poland in 1939 the university where Pope John Paul II was studying was shut down and he was required to work. From 1940 through 1944 he worked in many different jobs in order to avoid deportation to Germany. His father died in 1942 and served as a bit of a catalyst in pushing Pope John Paul II towards the priesthood. He sought the help of the Archbishop of Krakow in his priestly studies. The Archbishop had started an “underground” seminary in Krakow during World War II and Pope John Paul II began to study there. Later in 1944 he was hit by a truck and suffered a concussion along with a shoulder injury. This prevented him from continuing to work but further reinforced his desire to pursue priesthood. Also during his time in Krakow Pope John Paul II would work to protect Jews and help them escape the Nazi occupation.
In 1946 Pope John Paul II completed his studies and work necessary for the priesthood and he was ordained on November 1, All Saints Day. He then moved to Rome where he began graduate studies. He would complete his doctoral studies in 1948 but was unable to pay for the publication of his doctoral thesis which was required for him to officially complete the doctorate. He would return to Poland where he served as a pastor just outside Poland and began teaching ethics at the university he previously studied at. While teaching at the university he resubmitted his doctoral thesis and the university accepted it for publication and he would officially received his doctorate degree in 1948. Also at the university he had started working with a group of students who met for prayer, philosophical discussion and helping serve the blind and sick. The group started with 20 students but would eventually grow to over 200. During the Stalinist regime in Poland, students could not travel with priests. Pope John Paul II had the students in his group refer to him as “Uncle” to prevent others from knowing he was a priest as they traveled around.
Pope John Paul II attended the meetings for the Second Vatican Council (started by Pope John XXII) when ran from 1962-65. While there he contributed to two of the most important writings to come out of the council, Dignitatis Humanae (Of the Dignity of the Human Person and Decree on Religious Freedom) and Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). In 1964 Pope John Paul II was named Archbishop of Krakow in 1967 and would later be promoted to a Cardinal in 1967 by Pope Paul VI.
In 1978 Pope Paul VI died and Pope John Paul II attended the conclave in Rome to elect a new pope. Pope John Paul I was elected but died after only 33 days. 10 days after the funeral another conclave was called to elect a new pope. Pope John Paul II was not initially considered as there was two strong candidates already under consideration. The votes were split between the conservative Archbishop of Genoa, Giuseppe Cardinal Siri, and the more liberal Archbishop of Florence, Giovanni Cardinal Benelli. After it became clear that neither would receive enough votes over the other, a compromise was offered by the Archbishop of Vienna to elect Pope John Paul II. The compromise was accepted and he was elected to the papacy on October 16, 1978. Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
One of the most notable parts of Pope John Paul II’s papacy was his international focus and travel. John Paul II traveled all over the world. He visited 129 countries and traveled nearly 680,000 miles in his journeys. This would equal traveling about 28 times around the earth or 1 round trip between the earth and moon plus a one way ticket back to the moon. He consistently attracted large crowds especially at the World Youth Day in Manila which was estimated has having 4 million people. Pope John Paul II was the first pope to visit such countries as: Mexico, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Haiti, and Egypt. He met with Coptic and Greek Orthodox patriarchs in Egypt, he visited and prayed in an Islamic mosque in Damascus, and visited Jerusalem to be the first pope to pray at the Western Wall. This international focus also led to extensive dialogue with other Christian traditions and other world religions.
Pope John Paul II took strong stances on the dignity of human life. He supported the church’s long standing teachings against abortion and euthanasia. He also took a strong stand against capital punishment. These Pope John Paul II considered a part of the “culture of death” that he saw as pervasive in the modern world. Pope John Paul II would also be a strong supporter of debt forgiveness and social justice movements. He would call for a Jubilee Year in 2000. This was to not only celebrate the 2000 year since the birth of Jesus but in a hope to turn the world more towards spiritual renewal, to greater love, truth and unity in the Church and world.
Pope John Paul II also worked for peace in almost every major conflict during his papacy. He opposed Apartheid in South Africa, he opposed the 1990 Gulf War, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he called for a ceasefire and end to the genocide (being the first world leader to use the term) in Rwanda in 1990. The leadership of Pope John Paul II is also credited with inspiring the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe along with the overthrow of many oppressive dictatorships.
Having served as pope for over 26 years, Pope John Paul II was second only to Pope Pius IX and possibly St. Peter in his time as pope. He survived two assassination attempts and many cancer scares. Even though he still traveled extensively, his health began a very public decline and in 2001 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. During his final days when he was suffering from a serious infection, thousands of people held vigil in St. Peter’s Square. Pope John Paul II succumbed to his ailing health and died on April 2, 2005.
Shortly after his death, many of the Catholic clergy began referring to Pope John Paul II as John Paul “the Great”. While there is no official method for establish the title of “the Great”, he continues to be referred to as John Paul the Great today. He was canonized and considered a saint on April 27, 2014 at a mass led by the current Pope Francis and attended by the previous Pope Benedict XVI.
May we, as Pope John Paul II demonstrated, seek to uphold and promote the dignity of humanity in all areas of life. May we establish and heal relationships not only with those closest to us but with the world. May we seek peace, justice and Jubilee at every opportunity and promote the sacredness of life even through death. May we also be willing to reach out to people of all faith’s to seek to understand rather than criticize.