The Parish Priest of Wadowice, Father Edward Zacher, proudly opened for what must have been the umpteenth time, the register of baptism for the month of June 1920. The entry recorded the baptism of one Karol Wojtyla born on May 18, 1920 and to that original entry other inscriptions had been added:
|30.XII.63|| Archbishop of Crakow|
|and the last entry unique in the parish registers of|
Poland, that people from all over the world come to see,
|16.X.78|| in Summum Pontificem electus,|
Joannes Paulus Secundum.
A Brief Biography of
the Holy Father, the 264th successor to St. Peter,
Pope John Paul II
Karol Jozef Wojtyla (pronounced Voy-ti-wa) was born on May 18, 1920 to Emilia (born Kaczorowska) Wojtyla and Karol Wojtyla a lieutenant in the Polish army. The boy was named Karol, after his father, but his mother called him "Lolek." Emilia spent all her free time with her baby, playing with him, reading to him, telling him tales from the Bible. Edmund, Karol's elder brother, they nicknamed "Mundek", was studying at university in Krakow, studying to be a doctor. Born in 1906, he was uncommonly bright, handsome and athletic.
But death hovered over the family, making itself felt first when an infant sister died before Lolek was born. On April 13, 1929, when 8 year old Karol was at school his mother died. Emilia was only 45. From then on, the single source of great and ongoing joy in Karol's life was his brother Edmund, whom he idolized. After graduation Edmund took a post as resident in a hospital in Bielsko, Silesia, where Karol visited him regularly. In an epidemic of scarlet fever on December 4, 1932 Edmund died alone before his family could reach him. To this day, in a desk drawer in his Vatican study the supreme pontiff keeps a beloved treasure that he received from the hospital staff in Bielsko: his brother's stethoscope.
After graduation, Karol moved with his father to Krakow and enrolled at Jagiellonian University in 1938 to study Polish language and literature (Polish studies) and philosophy. By September 6, 1938 the Germans had occupied Krakow and on September 28, Warsaw surrendered. In the fall of 1940, Karol got work as a labourer at a quarry operated by the German-run Solvay chemical firm on the outskirts of Krakow. For eight hours at a stretch he was forced to work outside in temperatures as low as 22 degrees below zero. Conditions were brutal. One day Karol saw a companion die when a rock fragment pierced his temple as he operated a stone saw. On February 18, 1941, it was freezing cold when Wojtyla went to work. His father ,bedridden at home, was unable to look after himself. Following work, Wojtyla picked up some food and medicine and returned home to his basement flat. His father had died. Years later John Paul II would say of this time: "At 20 I had already lost all the people I loved."
During the occupation, the Nazis decreed the church could not train any more seminarians. Wojtyla entered the ranks of the archbishop's secret seminary in October 1942. In January 1945, German resistance to the Allies finally broke down and Krakow was liberated.
Karol Wojtyla was able to finish his theological studies at Jagiellonian University, and on November 1, 1946 he was ordained by Archbishop Sapieha. He was 26 years of age. Next morning, on All Souls' Day, one of the great feasts of the Polish liturgical year, he said his first Mass in the crypt of St. Leonard in Wawel Cathedral. He continued his studies. The theological department at the University was still open (the Government closed it down a year or so later) and once again he enrolled as a student. He was working on the thesis on the works of St. John of the Cross and when he presented it in the summer of 1949 he was awarded a doctorate in theology.
The defeat of the Nazis didn't free the church-or Poland-from oppression. Stalinist consolidation of Eastern and Central Europe was brutally swift.
On September 28, 1958, Karol Wojtyla was consecrated as bishop in the Wawel Cathedral in Krakow. Less than two weeks later, on October 9, Pope Pius XII died at the age of 82, and on October 28 the cardinals elected Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, 76, who took the name Pope John XXIII. Within three months the new pope called an ecumenical council. Invitations were sent to all 2594 bishops around the world, including Karol Wojtyla. The Second Vatican Council held between October 1962 and December 1965 was to bring the Catholic Church in tune with the present times.
In December 1963 Karol Wojtyla was consecrated Archbishop of Crakow and in 1967 Pope Paul VI made him a cardinal. In 1976 the New York Times placed the cardinal on the list of the ten most frequently mentioned candidates to succeed Pope Paul VI. But on August 6th 1978 when Paul VI died, Cardinal Albino Luciani, 65, was elected as Pope John Paul I. After only 33 days, Pope John Paul I died. He had shown no sign of exhaustion on the previous evening, and had visited the chapel for night prayers as usual. Next morning, after he had failed to appear at Mass, one of his secretaries went to his room and found him dead, in bed, with his reading lamp still on and a copy of the Imitation of Christ open beside him.
On Monday, October 16, 1978 , Karol Wojtyla was chosen Pope.
The Roman Catholic Church had elected the 264th successor to St. Peter, the youngest Pope since Pio Nono, who had been elected in 1846 at the age of fifty-four, the first non-Italian after 455 years (the last was Adrian VI in 1523) and the first Pope from behind the so-called Iron Curtain, the whole of whose priestly experience had been acquired under a Communist regime. When asked "Do you accept?", with tears in his eyes he said "Yes, with obedience in faith to Christ, my Lord, and with trust in the Mother of Christ and of the Church, in spite of the great difficulties, I accept." To honour the legacy of the past three popes, he took John Paul II as his name.
One journalist, after hearing the new Pope's first blessing in St. Peter's Square wired back to his editors: "This is not a pope from Poland, this is a pope from Galilee."
So little known was Cardinal Karol Wojtyla outside of Poland, that when he was elected the crowd waiting in St Peter's square wondered aloud, "Where is he from?". One woman exclaimed in disbelief, "Wojtyla?!! They have elected an African Pope!!?!". "No", said a journalist standing beside her, "Karol Wojtyla is Polish."
The pope's ability to reach people was aided in large part by his ability to speak several languages. Born into a Polish-speaking home, the pope began learning German at age ten; Latin at age 13; and Greek at age 14. By the time he became pontiff, the pope had mastered eight languages.
When Wojtyla's election was announced, Yuri Andropov, leader of the Soviet Union's KGB intelligence agency, warned the Politburo that there could be trouble ahead. Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged publicly the role of John Paul II in the fall of Communism. "What has happened in Eastern Europe in recent years would not have been possible without the presence of this Pope." (quoted in La Stampa, March 3, 1992). The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe began with the Pope's visit to Poland in 1979, and several more trips in 1983 and 1987. Millions of people spread the revolution, but it began with the Pope's trip home in 1979. As General Jaruzelski said, "That was the detonator."
On May 13, 1981, at 5pm, the pontiff emerged for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square. After entering the open "popemobile," the pontiff was riding around the colonnade. When a Turkish terrorist, Mehmet Ali Agca fired at the pope. The pope had been wounded in his stomach, right elbow and index finger of his left hand. As the Pope slumped to the floor he repeated the words, "Mary, my mother! Mary, my mother!". After five hours and 20 minutes of operation, just over half a metre of John Paul II's intestine were removed. The bullet had passed a few millimetres from the aorta. If it had hit, death would have been instantaneous. The pope said later, "One hand fired and another guided the bullet." A secret prophesy that was revealed by Our Lady to Sister Lucia on May 13, 1917. Sister Lucia, then a shepard girl was one of the three visionaries of Fatima. She later wrote, "And we saw in an immense light that is God: a Bishop dressed in White ...as he makes his way with great difficulty towards the Cross amid the corpses of those who were martyred (Bishops, priests, men and women Religious and many lay people), he too falls to the ground, apparently dead, under a hail of gunfire." Fatima is undoubtedly the most prophetic of modern apparitions. The Pope himself explained his survival in the following words: "... it was a mother's hand that guided the bullet's path and in his throes the Pope halted at the threshold of death" (13 May 1994). This prophesy written by Sister Lucia on 3 January 1944 "by order of His Excellency the Bishop of Leiria and the Most Holy Mother" would be disclosed by the Catholic Church on May 13, 2000. On the occasion of a visit to Rome by the then Bishop of Leiria-Fatima, the Pope decided to give him the bullet which had remained in the jeep after the assassination attempt, so that it might be kept in the shrine. By the Bishop's decision, the bullet was later set in the crown of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima. The Pope visited his assasin, Agca, in his cell and forgave him. The astonished Agca asked the Pope, "How is it that I could not kill you?"
'It is a heavy and terrifying burden they have placed on his shoulders,' wrote Tadeusz Zychiewicz in Tygodnik Powszechny, shortly after Karol Wojtyla was elected pope, 'It is cold up there on the mountain. With all our hearts we wish him the strength to bear the cold, knowing as we do that he will not only be cold but alone. May God be always near him.'
"An exceptional man," said Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, "the pope did everything possible to help humanity out of its era of hate."
'I would say,' commented George Williams, a Protestant theologian at Harvard , 'that in a most remarkable way he is a man whose soul is at leisure with itself.'
No man in modern times do I admire more than Pope John Paul II and for millions of young Catholics like me Pope John Paul II is the only Pope we've ever known. The times in which we live are an agonising test of our faith, man's loss of belief is disturbing the roots of his being, in our times more than in the previous generations. And John Paul II has been a beacon, never wavering, ever faithfully leading his flock. 'May God be always near him.'
John - Paul - II, we - love - you.