John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla; 1920–2005)

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JOHN PAUL II (Karol Wojtyła; 1920–2005)


Pope from 1978 to 2005.

Karol Wojtyła was born on 18 May 1920 in Wadowice, Poland, a town near Kraków. A bright student, he studied philosophy before attending the underground seminary run by the archbishop of Kraków during World War II. A worker by day, he studied in the evenings. Ordained to the priesthood on 1 November 1946, he entered the Angelicum in Rome where he received a master's degree in theology, then a doctorate under the supervision of the Thomist priest Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange. Returning to Poland in 1948, he was active in the Kraków diocese and several years later continued his education; the bishop allowed him two years to prepare his aggregation in theology, opening up the possibility of a scholarly life within the church. He taught at the Catholic University of Lublin and at the Catholic seminary in Kraków from 1954, and held the chair of ethics at the Catholic University from 1956.

Appointed auxiliary bishop in Kraków on 4 July 1958, Wojtyła was consecrated archbishop on 13 January 1964. This appointment enabled him to take part in the final session of the Second Vatican Council, and in 1967 Pope Paul VI (r. 1963–1978) consecrated him cardinal. Wojtyła made common cause with the Polish primate in defying communist authorities. As cardinal, he also traveled abroad, developing solid contacts within the church.

When John Paul I died, and the college of cardinals needed to choose a successor, Wojtyła was not an obvious choice. He emerged on the eighth ballot. It could be speculated that Wojtyła's impressive education and linguistic facility—he could speak at least eight languages—and his natural charisma persuaded the conclave to elect him pope on 16 October 1978. He was the first non-Italian pontiff since Adrian VI (r. 1522–1523) and the first Polish pope in history.

John Paul II's first homily, in which he stated, "Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ," became emblematic of his pontificate. Clearly influenced by two conciliary popes, John XXIII (r. 1958–1963) and Paul VI, Wojtyła hoped to reinforce the volunteer and philanthropic aspects of the church as well as to make his mark with a balanced reading of the advances in church doctrine emerging from the Second Vatican Council.

Redemptoris Hominis, John Paul's programmatic first encyclical (published 15 March 1979), emphasized that the church's mission and human dignity are based on the mystery of Christ the redeemer. In thus proclaiming the integral notion of the human person, John Paul II presented himself as a defender of human dignity. He descried what he described as a "culture of death" in the Evangelium Vitae of 25 March 1995; he condemned euthanasia and abortion while promoting the value of conjugal love, inspired by the encyclical of his predecessor, Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (1968).

A force for unity, early in his pontificate John Paul II confronted the deep challenge of liberation theology. He denounced reinterpretation of scripture that cast Jesus as a political revolutionary, and remained on guard against any such perspective, which he believed had the potential for creating divisions among Latin American Catholics.

Viewing himself as a pope of peace, John Paul II developed the Vatican's diplomatic initiatives and charitable activities. He spoke out "to defend human rights, in particular religious freedom," which he advocated as a universal human need. He spoke in defense of victims and refugees, and offered a reminder that principles of justice and equality must be the bases of international law and its application.

As the first pope from inside the Iron Curtain, John Paul was actively hostile to communism. Already engaged in political struggles against the Polish communist regime as priest and prelate, his activism only increased as pontiff. He supported Solidarity, the Polish independent labor union, and was a friend to the anticommunist movement in the Soviet Union until its collapse and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

John Paul II was also a bridge-builder of sorts. He organized the first World Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi, Italy, on 27 October 1986 and a second one on 24 January 2002, shortly after the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001. Bringing together leaders of the major Christian and non-Christian religions, he promoted nonviolence and urged "a courageous choice of love, a choice that, implies effective protection of human rights and a firm commitment for justice and harmonious development." John Paul II thus became closely associated with ecumenicalism and interfaith dialogue. While working on a rapprochement with the Anglican and Orthodox churches, he also strengthened relations between the Catholic Church and non-Christian religions, particularly Judaism.

Less than a year after his election, the pope traveled to the former concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. This was a clear indication of the sovereign pontiff's interest in reaching out to the Jewish people. It was followed in April 1986 by John Paul II's visit to the Synagogue of Rome—the first official papal visit to a synagogue ever. These two occasions symbolized the Catholic Church's efforts to enhance its understanding of the Shoah and to express its love and respect for the Jewish people. They are harbingers of two later statements from the Vatican. The first, "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah" (1998), acknowledged the historical participation of Christians in the genocide and therefore called on each Christian to reflect on the significance of the Holocaust. The second, "The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible" (2001), proposed a way of reading the Bible that, though Christian, implied no trace of contempt for the Jewish people. Taken together, these acts and texts depict a Catholic Church prepared to revise its relationship to the Jews in a way that includes esteem and dialogue.

John Paul traveled widely, and his various pilgrimages highlighted all the themes of his pontificate; he was above all evangelistic. He launched a "return to yourself" campaign in 1982 encouraging Europeans to recover their faith, to "discover their origins, revive their roots" and in 1985 inaugurated World Youth Day. His greatest effort to reach out to other faiths came in the Holy Land during the jubilee pilgrimage in 2000. In the Middle East, riven with conflict, he took considerable personal risks to meet with religious leaders from all corners of the earth, delivering his message of peace and hope, the leitmotiv of his pontificate.

Whether John Paul II should be considered a modern or conservative pope depends on where in the world the question is asked. The exceptional length of his pontificate—almost twenty-seven years—and the multiplicity of the issues he addressed during that time certainly make any simple answer impossible. In a world he viewed as contaminated by ethical relativism, John Paul II above all wanted to reassert clear principles, the signature of life and human dignity. He spoke out for a universal church clear about its beliefs and its message. He symbolized the rejection of communism in Eastern Europe, which led to the end of the Cold War and to the Soviet system itself. (It is possible the Soviet secret services were behind a failed assassination attempt in 1981.) He was a statesman, but much more than that. He embodied the church at a moment when it returned to older values but reconfigured them in new forms. Whether John Paul II was indeed the conscience of humanity in an era of alienation and conflict, only time will tell.

See alsoCatholicism; Poland; Solidarity.


Crosby, John F., and Gneuhs, Geoffrey. The Legacy of John Paul II: His Contribution to Catholic Thought. New York, 1999.

Gregg, Samuel. Challenging the Modern World. Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II and the Development of Catholic Social Teaching. Lanham, Md., 2002.

John Paul II. In My Own Words. New York, 2002.

Lecomte, Bernard. Jean-Paul II. Paris, 2003.

Les encycliques de Jean-Paul II. With a commentary by Joseph Ratzinger. Paris, 2003.

Vircondelet, Alain. John-Paul II: The Life of Karol Wojtyla. Paris, 2004.

Olivier Rota