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In our life, everything depends (…) on the family, school, parents and siblings, on our schoolmates”, said John Paul II in Wadowice in 1999, approaching the end of his life. Here, before his mother and brother passed away, Karol Wojtyła lived his life in a caring family, made his first friendships, and – thanks to the excellent teachers at high school – developed an interest in the humanities.
Karol Wojtyła was born in the town house at Kościelna St. No. 7, where, on the ground floor, the Jewish owner of the building, Chiel Bałamuth had a shop. In the neighbouring church of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Karol was baptized, received the First Communion, and, every day, served as an altar boy. A few steps away, in the building of the Town Hall, he went to elementary school.
As a student of the state „Marcin Wadowita” Classic High School, Karol used to play in the School Drama Theatre, interpreting the leading parts of the greatest Polish playwrights. Throughout his whole life, Karol Wojtyła never lost his passion for the art of word, poetry and literature. Likewise, his love for his little homeland – Wadowice and Poland, which regained independence two years before Wojtyła was born.
The experience of life in a multinational, Polish-Jewish community in Wadowice, was later evoked in his interreligious dialogue. In 2000, when John Paul II visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem and – according to the Jewish tradition – left there a slip of paper with a prayer to God to forgive the sins committed by the Christians against the Jews, his Jewish friend from Wadowice, Jerzy Kluger witnessed this act. Although Karol Wojtyła decided to join the seminar in Kraków, his decision was clearly influenced by the priests in Wadowice: rev. Kazimierz Figlewicz and rev. Edward Zacher, by the Carmelites and their monastery at „Górka”, and, perhaps most of all, by the spirit of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, where, as he used to say, “his heart remained for ever.”
Brought up at the foot of the Beskid Mały, from his early childhood he used to climb to the top of Leskowiec, Babia Góra, Madohora, in the company of his father, brother and his schoolmates. When he was a priest, and then bishop and cardinal, he used to ski and hike in the mountains alone, with his close friends or with the students from the University Chaplaincy at St. Florian Parish in Kraków. He would walk through the Beskidy, Pieniny, Gorce and Bieszczady, he was in the Sudety, but – most of all – the future Pope loved the Tatras. They were „his mountains” – he used to hike there in winter and summer. During his ponitificate, he visited some of those places during his pilgrimages to Poland: in 1983, when he met Lech Wałęsa in the Chochołowska Valley, and in 1997, when taking a rest in Zakopane, John Paul II went to Morskie Oko lake and then, in a cable car, to the top of Kasprowy Wierch.
At Turbacz, in 1979, the highlanders built for him a bacówka, shepherd’s hut. It was a chapel, which the Pope never visited, but told the builders: „watch these mountain paths for me”. During his other pilgrimages, John Paul II always liked to visit places situated in the mountains. He would spend his holidays in Les Combes in the Alps, in the Aosta Valley, where one enjoys the view of Mont Blanc, or in Lorenzago di Cadore in the Dolomites. Over a hundred times, the Pope, accompanied only by the most trusted members of the papal circle, left the Apostolic Palace, to ski – incognito – in the Abruzzo mountains. He gave up skiing only in 1993, after a shoulder injury, but up to the end of his life, mountains were his favourite holiday destination. He would contemplate the beauty of creation in which he could seek God. „There are three of us: God, the mountains and me”, John Paul II used to say.
The Wojtyłas moved into a town house of Chiel Bałamuth in 1919. The apartment was rather small, modestly furnished in the bourgeois style. A year later, on 18 May 1920, Karol was born. He was the son of Emilia née Kaczorowska and Karol Wojtyła, first lieutenant in the Polish Army, who worked for the administartion of the 12th Infantry Regiment for the region of Wadowice. Emilia, from whom – as he said later – the future Pope „learnt about suffering”, died in April 1929.
Three years later another tragedy struck the Wojtyła family: Edmund, Karol’s 14 years older brother died. He was a medical doctor, and contracted scarlet fever from a patient in a hospital in Bielsko. „My brother’s death struck me perhaps even more than my mother’s, because of its special – one could even say – tragic circumstances. Also, it came when I was more mature,” the Pope said years later. Now there were just the two of them: father and son. First lieutenant Wojtyła, who retired in 1927, ran the household and was raising the son. He taught him German, read books to him and recommended titles to read, he engendered patriotism in Karol and supported him in sports competitions, took him to the top of Leskowiec and was an attentive critic of his Karol’s first steps on the stage. Every day the father and son would attend the Holy Mass. The example set by his father, a deeply devout man, for whom prayer was an inherent part of his life, became the “first home seminar” for Karol Wojtyła. In summer 1938 they moved to Kraków, where, in autumn, Karol jr went to university. But he never forgot Wadowice. He would often remeber the town and come back to Wadowice.
Since „the Holy Spirit considered it appropriate to raise the bishop of Kraków to the office of the bishop of Rome and the Shepherd of the Church, there must have been something in his experience which could be useful for others.”, said John Paul II. The church and diocese of Kraków, which also included Wadowice, was for the future Pope a laboratory of faith, religious and civic attitude.
Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, Karol Wojtyła’s close friend and his successor as bishop of Kraków, noted that here „[Karol Wojtyła’s] way of being a man, a Christian, a priest and the pope developed”. Wojtyła – as metropolitan archbishop – drew on the rich heritage of the church of Kraków, with its numerous saints: from Bishop Stanislaus and Jadwiga, Monarch of Poland, to brother Albert Chmielowski and Faustyna Kowalska. Karol Wojtyła lived in Kraków for nearly 40 years. During the Second World War he was a worker. His experience of physical work was later reflected in his social encyclicals. At that time, personalism of Karol Wojtyła, philosopher, developed. This philosophical thought, put to practice by the bishop and then Pope, made each, even only momentary meeting with the Pope, a unique experience in the eyes of millions all over the world. It was in Kraków that Karol Wojtyła saw two totalitarianisms: the Nazi system during the war and the communist rule in the post-war Poland. Owing to this experience, the Pope could not only identify the essential error in liberation theology but also – with his great spiritual power – contributed to the dismantling of the communist system.
Dominus adest et vocat Te” („The Lord is here and he is calling you”) – said Belgian cardinal Maximilien de Furstenberg to cardinal Wojtyła on the third day of the conclave, when the electors’ votes started to tip the balance in his favour. On 16 October 1978, on the eight day of voting, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła was elected the 264th pope.
He was the first – in 455 years – non-Italian national on the Throne of St. Peter. What is more, he came from East-Central Europe, separated from the world by the “iron curtain”. Ninety-nine electors out of 111 who cast their vote, indicated Wojtyła, appreciating the fact that he was able to lead the church of Kraków in the chaos which followed the Second Vatican Council, and under the pressure of communist ideology. They elected a cardinal with pastoral experience, „from a far country”, as John Paul II called himself in his first words to the crowds at St. Peter’s Square. Although very few had ever heard his name, just after some sentences, characteristic of the new papal style, they were enchanted.
Soon after John Paul II announced the priorities of his pontificate: to complete the introduction of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, to support the unity of the Christians and to act for peace and justice among the nations. The words pronounced during the Inaugural Mass on 22 October – „Don’t be afraid. (…) open wide the doors for Christ” – became the key to his all 27-year-long pontificate. „This isn’t a pope from Poland; this is a pope from Galilee,” said the French writer and journalist Andre Frossard.
Eight bullets were left in 9mm Browning. They did not fire because the lock got jammed. On 13 May 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish assassin, was aiming this gun at John Paul II at St. Peter’s Square. The bullet injured John Paul II in the abdomen, passed the aorta by millimetres, and not even grazed the backbone. „Man proposes, God disposes”, said the Pope later. He forgave the assassin mediately.
On 17 May, in his first public speech, recorded in the hospital, the Pope declared: „I pray for my brother, who delivered the blow to me, and I truly forgive him.” The Pope paid a visit to Ali Agca, in prison, at Christmas 1983, and in 1999 he appealed to the Italian authorities to grant pardon to the assassin. This tragic event of 13 May 1981 – said Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz– which remains a mystery in the dimension of God, left a lasting mark on the „shape and fruitfulness” of the apostolic service of John Paul II. Perhaps „this blood was necessary at St. Peter’s Square, the place of martyrdom of the first Christians”? The Pope knew that he owed his salvation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who first appeared in Fatima exactly on 13 May. On the anniversary of the assassination John Paul II went to Fatima and placed the bullet which hit had him in the crown of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima. He thanked St. Mary for his salvation, and repeating again the „Totus Tuus, Maria”, consecrated himself, the Church and the world to Her.
He was all Hers. Totus Tuus – these words from the Treatise on the true devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary by St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort, became the motto of the bishop and then pope John Paul II. He first used them in a poem, in 1939. Karol Wojtyła was growing up in the spirit of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
A very important place was the Shrine of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. His father took him there for the first time after the funeral of his mother. As pope, Wojtyła said that his devotion to the Virgin Mary matured in Kalwaria, where the paths of St. Mary cross the Way of the Cross, where the mystery of „unification of Mother and Son and Son with His Mother” can be experienced. Pope’s devotion to St. Mary was closely connected with a theme of Christology. Prayer to St. Mary – the Rosary – was Wojtyła’s favourite. „Such a wonderful prayer! Wonderful in its simplicity and depth” – he would encourage us to pray the Rosary. Thousands of them were given to the visitors in the Vatican and during the pilgrimages across the world.
In 2002 John Paul II introduced new mysteries of the Rosary – the mysteries of light. During his journeys, John Paul II would always stop at the shrines of Virgin Mary, including his favourite ones in Częstochowa, Fatima, Guadelupe and Ludźmierz. He liked his private visits to the shrine of Mentorella, situated in the mountains, not far from the Vatican. „No, I haven’t seen Mary but I can hear Her,” he said once. During his last visit to Poland in 2002, in a moving prayer to Our Lady of Calvary, John Paul II again consecrated himself, the Church and Poles to St. Mary. „In you do I trust and once more to you I declare: Totus Tuus, Maria! Totus Tuus. Amen”.
John Paul II visited Poland eight times. He was in all corners of the country. Several million Poles attended meetings with the Pope. His stay was usually a great national holiday, although different in the communist Poland and after 1989.
During his pilgrimages the political and social conflicts calmed down. John Paul II visited Poland at the moments that were very important for the whole nation, but he also spiritually initiated those moments and supported democratic transformations. In 1979, during the Holy Mass at Victory Square in Warsaw, the Pope – in his appeal to the Holy Spirit to renew the face of „this earth” – „baptized Poland for the second time”, and later, before his departure from Kraków, he administered the sacrament of „confirmation of our times”. His words fell on good soil. A year later „Solidarity” movement was born; it changed the face of Poland and of the whole Central and Eastern Europe.
When the hope for transformation seemed to fade away, John Paul II, during his pilgrimages, would keep it alive, and then, in free Poland, reminded us about the values upon which to build our freedom so that it does not turn into constraint. Before Poland joined the European Community, which he wholehartedly supported, John Paul II appealed to the Poles to remain faithful to God and His Cross. His last pilgrimage in 2002 was his farewell to Poland and to the places which had always been so close to his heart. Focusing the world’s attention on Łagiewniki in Kraków, John Paul II consecrated the world to Divine Mercy. And so, in a way, he “brought his pontificate to a close”. The Message of Divine Mercy, which he brought to the Holy See from Kraków, thus spread across the world.
He was a shepherd. A real father who shows us which way to go. A demanding and loving father. The 14 encyclicals written by John Paul II present a synthesis of his teaching. In the first one, entitled Redemptor hominis, which laid down the programme of this pontificate, the Pope showed us Jesus Christ as the Redeemer of every man.
In his social encyclicals, John Paul II gave a diagnosis of free market and democracy, emphasizing that they are positive only if founded on authentic values; otherwise they will degenerate. The Pope also systematically introduced the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, starting a new evangelization, which was to enhance the missionary role of the Church. He developed ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. The Theology the Body, taught at the Wednesday general audiences, was his response to the sexual revolution of 1968. John Paul II defended human rights, giving the primary importance to the fundamental right to life. He struggled against civilization of death which acts against the weakest – unborn children (abortion), against the old and the ill (euthanasia).
The Pope raised to the altars a record number of 1800 people, convinced that large numbers of the blessed and saints would help us find our own way to sanctity. He led the Church to the third millennium of Christianity, preceding this act with an unprecedented examination of conscience of the Church, in which he asked God to forgive it the sins of the past. When he was taking over the helm of the Church, it was stricken by the chaos which followed the Second Vatican Council. In 2000 the Church kept on course so firmly that the Pope could appeal to put out into the deep of faith, always relying on the support of Christ. John Paul II elevated papacy to an unprecedented level, himself becoming a true moral authority in the globalized world.
He was a pilgrim. Like the first Apostles. He wished to visit those who could not come to him. To meet his brothers in faith in their everyday life – to learn how they live, in what they rejoice, what problems they have, why they suffer.
John Paul II wanted to bring them the Gospel and the hope which only Christ can give us. He called for peace, respect of human rights, for which religious freedom was an important test. He appealed for social justice, standing up for the poor, the abandoned and the excluded, visiting them in hospitals, hospices, slums and prisons. He called for solidarity and mercy. The Pope met heads of state and leaders of international organizations: policy makers having influence on the history of nations, on the countries and on the globalized world. An important element of all his pilgrimages were the meetings with representatives of other churches, denominations and religions.
John Paul II was the first pope to visit a synagogue and a mosque. In Assisi, together with representatives of other religions, he prayed for peace, and in Casablanca – met young Muslims. During his 104 foreign pilgrimages, John Paul II visited 130 countries all over the world, many of them more than once. In the Jubilee Year 2000 he went to the Holy Land, where, as a pilgrim, he followed in the footsteps of Christ. He greeted every country symbolically kissing the ground. He repeated this gesture – after the example of St. Jean-Marie Vianney – when, as a vicar, in 1948, he crossed the threshold of his first parish in Niegowić, in the diocese of Kraków.
Division openly contradicts the will of Christ, provides a stumbling block to the world, and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the Good News to every creature,” wrote John Paul II in his encyclical Ut unum sint. Achieving the unity of Christianity was one of his pastoral priorities. No other pope did more for the cause of ecumenism, or to promote interreligious dialogue than John Paul II.
He showed that the dialogue requires not only a theological debate, exchange of arguments, but also great sensitivity, expressed in gestures. He was a master at it. He was the first pope to visit a synagogue (in Rome), enter a mosque (in Damascus) and meet young Muslims (in Casablanca). After centuries, he visited the Orthodox Greece, met the Archbishop of Canterbury. Nevertheless, his dream of the Catholics entering the third millennium of Christianity together with their Orthodox brothers did not come true. Part of the papal ecumenical and interreligious engagement was his action for peace. To peace he devoted his two prayer meetings in Assisi.
In his addresses at the occasion of the World Day of Peace, at the meetings with diplomatic corps, in the speeches to the United Nations and at the European institutions, John Paul II would stress that respect for human rights and justice is an inalienable condition of peace. He would urge an end to the conflicts at the Balkans and in central Africa; he was against the military intervention in Iraq. Owing to his intermediation, the war between Argentina and Chile did not break out, and transformation in East- Central Europe developed peacefully.
If you want to find the source, you have to go up, against the current. Break through, search, don’t yield,” – wrote John Paul II in his last poem Roman Triptych: Meditations, published in March 2003. For all his life, Karol Wojtyła went up against the current, up to the source, which was the Word. And, being close to Him, where one can find „transparency of history” and „transparency of conscience”, he wrote that after his death there would be again people who would gather in the Sistine Chapel, through whom God would point to his successor.
This Pope was a poet. Although he gave up writing poetry in 1978, when he was elected to the Apostolic See, he returned to it in Roman Triptych. This way his life came full circle. Karol Wojtyła wrote his first poems already in high school, in Wadowice. At the age of 18, he was already an author of a series of sonnets. In his more difficult poetry, he relied on the heritage of the Polish Romantic writers and the tradition of Young Poland. From 1950 Wojtyła published his poems under a pen name in „Tygodnik Powszechny” weekly. He was also a playwright. Many of his dramas were adapted for the screen and to the stage after he was elected pope. For Karol Wojtyła, poetry was a way of expressing ideas which were difficult to render in the language of theology or philosophy. As he said in 2003, at the presentation of Roman Triptych, artistic creation was for him a kind of „anthropological symphony”, where „inspiration, having its source in the Christian mission, not identified with any culture, permeates them all and leads to the greater glory of God and man, intimately connected in the mystery of Christ.”
The pages of an open Book of Gospels placed on the plain cypress coffin of John Paul II flipped over in the wind. On 8 April 2005, on the day of the funeral of John Paul II, this image was broadcast on wall screens and viewed by over four million people gathered at St. Peter’s Square, in the streets of Rome and by hundreds of millions across the world.
Finally, a gust of wind shut the Book of Gospels. The great book of life of John Paul II was closed. It was not just wind. It was the wind from „from the Cenacle”, „the Pentecostal wind”, in which John Paul II deeply believed. In 1991, during his visit to Poland, the Pope said that he believed in „such a strong wind which once shook the walls of the Cenacle in Jerusalem. In this wind, through the forces of nature, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit was manifested”. The Pope devoted his third encyclical Dominum et vivificantem to the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. It is the Holy Spirit, he wrote, who „directs the unfolding of time and renews the face of the earth”, it is Him who brings about our internal transformation and strengthens in us the „internal”, that is “spiritual” being, while the Church keeps opening up to the problems of man and humanity. It was Karol Wojtyła’s father who taught the future Pope to pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Pope remained faithful to this simple prayer up to the end of his life.
John Paul II began to write his Last Will and Testament in 1979, during a spiritual retreat before Easter, and then he completed it in the years to come.
He was always totally reliant on the will of God, who would decide when and how his earthly life and pastoral mission should end. John Paul II always deeply believed that Christ would give him the „grace of his last Passover”, which will be valuable for the redemption of people, of the Church and for God Himself. In his testament, John Paul II mentioned with gratitude many people, but only two events in the life of the Church: the Jubilee Year 2000 and the Second Vatican Council, the heritage of which he entrusted to his successors.
But this document is not the only testament of the Pope. His testament is his entire, almost 27-year-long pontificate. Pope Wojtyła Left a great heritage. Its most important part is probably every individual touch which remained in the hearts of millions across the world, of those who listened to him, met him or only just saw him. John Paul II, by his testimony of faith, love and apostolic courage – said Benedict XVI on the occasion of the Beatification of Karol Wojtyła – helped us not to be afraid of the truth, which is a guarantee of freedom. Numerous signs of grace received Through the intercession of Blessed John Paul II prove that he is still helping us. He Is with us and blesses us from heaven.