The Early Years of Saint Pope John Paul II
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The Young Karol Wojtyla
By Deacon Keith Fournier
The Birth of Karol Josef Wojtyla
On May 18, 1920, during the month traditionally dedicated to Mary the Mother of the Lord, one of her greatest treasures for the Church of her Son was born in the town of Wodowice, 35 miles southwest of Krakow Poland. The world would later receive him as Saint Pope John Paul II. His name was Karol (Polish for Karl or Charles) Josef Wojtyla. His hometown had about 10,000 residents, roughly 8,000 Catholics and 2,000 Jews. He was given a nickname by his friends, "Lolek."
The Baptism of Karol Josef Wojtyla
Karol was Baptized into Christ and His Church on June 20, 1920 by a Chaplain in the Polish Army, Fr. Franciszek Zak. Karol was the son of a Polish Army Lieutenant also named Karol, a tailor by trade. Karol's mother Emilia, was a schoolteacher. He had an older brother named Edmund and sister named Olga. His brother became a Doctor in the town of Bielsko. Sadly, his sister died before Karol was born.
A Friend of Consequence
The Wojtylas were faithful Catholics. They rejected the growing anti-Semiticism among some Poles in that troubled time. One of young Karol's friends was Jerzy Kluger. He later recalled playing soccer with Karol. The teams were divided between Catholics and Jews. However, given the disparity in numbers, he recounts that young Karol would volunteer to play on the Jewish team in order to make the game more competitive and even out the odds.
This friendship lasted for a lifetime. Jerzy later participated in the dialogue which led to the extension of the Vatican's diplomatic recognition of the State of Israel. A special love for the Jewish people took root in young Karol. It was demonstrated dramatically during his Papacy when he visited the Central Synagogue of Rome and condemned anti-Semitism "at any time and by anyone." It was prophetically proclaimed in actions upon his visit to Auschwitz to honor the victims of the Holocaust. He was fond of regularly referring to the Jewish people as "our elder brothers" and taught the whole Church to do the same.
Karol Loses His Mother
Young Karol lost his mother a month before his ninth birthday. She died of heart and kidney problems. When he was only 12 years old his brother the Doctor died of scarlet fever. A childhood friend named Szczepan Mogielnicki told one news source that "he lost his childhood at 12, when he lost his brother... There was no youthful folly in him. Even when he played sports, he was very concentrated, but of course, he had a lot of passion. He was a very noble person, and he expressed things in a very noble way, but there was no folly." Father Karol and son Karol lived in a one room apartment behind the parish church.
Karol: The Father and the Son
The elder Karol sewed his sons clothing and watched over his studies. He taught him to be self disciplined and to work hard. He was deeply devoted to raising the son he loved. Another friend recalls entering the small apartment and finding father and son playing soccer with a ball made of rags. Karol credited his Catholic faith to the influence of his beloved father. The Church was a vital part of their life as a family. He made his First Holy Communion at age 9, they practiced their Catholic faith in the home and Karol was confirmed at 18. Upon graduation from Marcin Wadowita high school in Wadowice, he enrolled in Krakow's Jagiellonian University in 1938 and in a school for drama.
Seeds of the Priestly Vocation and Response to the Call
Karol the Actor, Poet and Pilgrim
During his early schooling young Karol Wojtyla participated in his first theatrical performances. His lifelong love for the theater and all of the arts was born. He began writing poetry. He performed in his first student theatrical productions. He began the study of Greek, was elected president of the Sodality of Mary, and made his first pilgrimage to Czestochowa, home of the Image of Our Lady of Czestochowa.
A Cardinal's Inquiry
It was also during this time that he impressed Adam Cardinal Sapieha, the Archbishop of Krakow. According to his friend Fr. Mieczyslaw Malinski, Karol's skill as a speaker caught the Archbishops attention when he visited the young man's school. Karol had been chosen to give the welcoming speech - and he did so with great skill. The Archbishop asked the pastor of the parish whether young Karol had considered the priesthood. He was told that Karol had his heart set on pursuing an acting career in the theatre.
Seeds Planted in the Heart
In 1987, Saint Pope John Paul II shared these thoughts with young people in Los Angeles, "I am often asked, especially by young people, why I became a priest. Maybe some of you would like to ask the same question. Let me try briefly to reply. I must begin by saying that it is impossible to explain entirely. For it remains a mystery, even to myself. How does one explain the ways of God? Yet, I know that, at a certain point in my life, I became convinced that Christ was saying to me what he had said to thousands before me: 'Come, follow me!'
"There was a clear sense that what I heard in my heart was no human voice, nor was it just an idea of my own. Christ was calling me to serve him as a priest. And you can probably tell that I am deeply grateful to God for my vocation to the priesthood. Nothing means more to me or gives me greater joy that to celebrate Mass each day and to serve God's people in the Church. That has been true ever since the day of my ordination as a priest. Nothing has ever changed this, not even becoming Pope."
Actor and Student of Philosophy
When Karol enrolled in Jagiellonian University in the fall of 1938 he first entered the school of philosophy. He also joined "Studio 38" an "experimental" theatre group where he continued acting. Events in Poland intervened in his life and interrupted his formal studies. However, nothing would interrupt his continued pursuit of learning. The troops of the National Socialists of Hitler's Germany invaded Poland in 1939. They quickly overtook the ill prepared Polish army.
The Nazi Aggressors
Among the many immediate acts of aggression undertaken by the Nazis was to close the University. Young Karol took a job in 1940 as a stone-cutter at a quarry in Zakrzowek, near Krakow. He later worked in the Solvay chemical factory to earn a living and avoid being deported to Germany. However, it was during those dark days that the seed of his priestly vocation was being watered and the light of his growing faith began to illuminate the path he would take in response to God's call.
A Friend is used by the Lord
During this time Karol Wojtyla came to know Jan Tryanowski, a young Catholic layman and youth leader at St. Stanislaus Kostka parish in the 1940s. That was Karol's university parish. During the Nazi occupation, priests were at a minimum. This young layman Jan had an extraordinary impact on Karol's life. He may have also contributed to the future Pope's lifelong conviction concerning the call of the lay faithful to fully participate in the mission of the Church. During his later participation in the Second Vatican Council and throughout his pontificate, he would be a champion of the universal call to holiness and the vital apostolate of the lay faithful.
This tailor Jan Tryanowski was a mystic, a man of deep prayer, who studied the writings of St John of the Cross and spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila with great intensity. Initially, young Karol was not all that impressed with Tryanowski. However, the Holy Spirit was unfolding a plan in young Karol's life. He became increasingly drawn to the tailor's interior life of prayer and deep real world aith. Tryanowski became a mentor to Karol. His influence helped to set the future Pope on a path which not only changed him but would change the whole world through him. Jan Tryanowski taught Karol about union with God and the call to abandon all to follow Jesus.
Now we call that tailor, the Servant of God Jan Tryanowski and his own cause for canonization is underway. Then, among his other youth outreaches, Tryanowski had formed a "Living Rosary" group. From that group many priestly and religious vocations emerged, including that of the young Karol Wojtyla. Years later Archbishop Karol Wojtyla wrote of the influence Jan Tyranowski had upon him:
"He was one of those unknown saints, hidden amid the others like a marvelous light at the bottom of life, at a depth where night usually reigns. He disclosed to me the riches of his inner life, of his mystical life. In his words, in his spirituality and in the example of a life given to God alone, he represented a new world that I did not yet know. I saw the beauty of a soul opened up by grace."
Seed Planted in Fertile Ground
In 1942, the seeds of his priestly vocation had taken deep root. Aware of his call to the priesthood, Karol Wojtyla made the choice to began courses in the underground seminary of Krakow. It was being run by Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha, the Archbishop of Krakow. However, Karol continued his acting, writing, and poetry. He became one of the pioneers of the "Rhapsodic Theatre". It, like seminary formation, was also forced underground by the Nazi occupation. This connection between the beauty of the Arts and the Christian vocation became a continuing theme of Karol Wojtyla. In one of his least known Papal letters entitled a "Letter to Artists" Saint Pope John Paul would write of "vocation" of artists to create "Epiphanies of Beauty."
Karol the Seminarian
After the Second World War the seminarian Karol Wojtyla entered the re-opened major seminary in Krakow. He also enrolled once again at Jagiellonian University to study theology. He was ordained to the diaconate and then to the priesthood by Archbishop Sapieha in Krakow on November 1, 1946. His intelligence and aptitude for further study became clear to the Archbishop, by then elevated to Cardinal. He sent Fr Karol Wojtyla to Rome to study and work under one of the great scholars and spiritual writers of the Church, the French Dominican, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange.
Life of Saint Pope John Paul II
Born in Wadowice (Kraków), Poland.May 18, 1920
Baptized by the military chaplain P. Franciszek Zak.
Baptized into Christ and His Church by a Chaplain in the Polish Army, Fr. Franciszek Zak.Baptized by the military chaplain P. Franciszek Zak.June 20, 1920
Attended the elementary school for boys
Attended the elementary school for boys, and then the prep years of secondary school "Marcin Wadowita" in which during all his classes he achieved the top grades.Attended the elementary school for boysSeptember 15, 1926
His mother dies.
Death of his mother due to heart and kidney problems.His mother dies.April 13, 1929
First Holy Communion
First Holy CommunionFirst Holy CommunionOctober 1, 1929
Admitted to the State Secondary School for boys, "Marcin Wadowita".
Admitted to the State Secondary School for boys, "Marcin Wadowita".Admitted to the State Secondary School for boys, "Marcin Wadowita".June 1, 1930
His brother Edmund dies.
Loss of his childhood occurs with the death of his brother to scarlet fever.His brother Edmund dies.December 5, 1932
Participates in military training exercises at Hermanice.
Participates in military training exercises at Hermanice.Participates in military training exercises at Hermanice.September 1, 1935
Admitted into the Society of Mary.
Admitted into the Society of Mary.Admitted into the Society of Mary.December 14, 1935
Receives the Sacrament of Confirmation.
Receives the Sacrament of Confirmation.Receives the Sacrament of Confirmation.May 1, 1938
Enrolls in the Faculty of Philosophy (course of Polish Philosophy) at Jagellonian University, Kraków.June 22, 1938
Young Karol and his father move to Kraków (Via Tyniecka 10).August 1, 1938
University military training
University military training camp at Ozomla, near Sadowa Wiszna for Polish and Ukraine students.University military trainingJuly 1, 1939
Second World War begins.
Second World War begins.Second World War begins.September 1, 1939
Registers for the second year university courses in Literature and Philosophy.
Registers for the second year university courses in Literature and Philosophy.Registers for the second year university courses in Literature and Philosophy.November 2, 1939
His father dies.
His father dies.His father dies.February 18, 1941
Escaped Gestapo round by hiding in his uncle's basement.
Escaped Gestapo round by hiding in his uncle's basement.Escaped Gestapo round by hiding in his uncle's basement.August 6, 1944
The Russian Armed Forces free Kraków from Nazi occupation.January 18, 1945
Ordained a priest.
Ordained a priest. As on the preceding occasions, he received Holy Orders from the hands of Archbishop Metropolitan Adam Sapieha in his private chapel.Ordained a priest.November 1, 1946
Celebrates his first Mass in the crypt of St. Leonard at Wavel.
Celebrates his first Mass in the crypt of St. Leonard at Wavel.Celebrates his first Mass in the crypt of St. Leonard at Wavel.November 2, 1946
Leaves Poland to begin studies in Rome.
Leaves Poland to begin studies in Rome.Leaves Poland to begin studies in Rome.November 15, 1946
Earns a master's degree in theology at the Jagellonian University in Kraków (1942-1946). Earns a doctorate in sacred theology in the Faculty of Theology at the Jagellonian University with highest marks.December 16, 1948
Recalled to Kraków to be assistant pastor at St. Florian's.August 5, 1949
Archbishop Baziak puts him on leave
Archbishop Baziak puts him on leave (until 1953) to complete his qualifying exams for a university position. Up until now he served as a chaplain to the university students (in St. Florian's) and for health workers.Archbishop Baziak puts him on leaveSeptember 1, 1951
Gives course in Catholic social ethics for Jagellonian University students
Gives a course in Catholic social ethics for the students of fourth year theology at the Jagellonian University.Gives course in Catholic social ethics for Jagellonian University studentsOctober 1, 1953
Completes qualifying exams with thesis on the "ethical system of Max Scheler".
Completes his qualifying exams by presenting his thesis on the "ethical system of Max Scheler".Completes qualifying exams with thesis on the "ethical system of Max Scheler".December 1, 1953
Faculty of Theology at the Jagellonian University abolished,
Faculty of Theology at the Jagellonian University abolished, this faculty is then organized at the Seminary of Kraków where he continues his studies. Catholic University of Lublin offers him a non-tenured professorship which he accepts.Faculty of Theology at the Jagellonian University abolished,January 1, 1954
Appointed to the Chair of Ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin.
Appointed to the Chair of Ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin.Appointed to the Chair of Ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin.December 1, 1956
The Central Qualifying Committee approves his appointment as free docent.
The Central Qualifying Committee approves his appointment as free docent.The Central Qualifying Committee approves his appointment as free docent.November 15, 1957
Appointed Auxiliary Bishop to Archbishop Mons. Eugeniusz Baziak of Kraków.July 4, 1958
Ordained Bishop in the Cathedral of Wavel.
Ordained Bishop in the Cathedral of Wavel.Ordained Bishop in the Cathedral of Wavel.September 28, 1958
After the death of Archbishop Baziak, named Vicar Capitular.
After the death of Archbishop Baziak, named Vicar Capitular.After the death of Archbishop Baziak, named Vicar Capitular.July 16, 1962
Participates in the II Session of the Second Vatican Council.
Participates in the II Session of the Second Vatican Council.Participates in the II Session of the Second Vatican Council.October 6, 1963
Designated Metropolitan Bishop of Kraków.December 30, 1963
Archbishop Wojtyla is made President of Apostolate of the Laity
Episcopal Commission for the Apostolate of the Laity is established; Archbishop Wojtyla is made President.Archbishop Wojtyla is made President of Apostolate of the LaityDecember 29, 1966
Karol Wojtyla named Cardinal elect
Paul VI announces the next Consistory. Among the names of the new Cardinals elect is that of Karol Wojtyla.Karol Wojtyla named Cardinal electMay 29, 1967
Consecrated Cardinal in the Sistine Chapel, by Pope Paul VI
Consecrated Cardinal in the Sistine Chapel, by Pope Paul VI - titular S. Cesareo in Palatio.Consecrated Cardinal in the Sistine Chapel, by Pope Paul VIJune 26, 1967
Takes possession of the titular Church, S. Cesareo in Palatio, Rome.
Takes possession of the titular Church, S. Cesareo in Palatio, Rome.Takes possession of the titular Church, S. Cesareo in Palatio, Rome.February 18, 1968
Vice-President of the Episcopal Conference
Approval of the statutes of the Episcopal Conference; Cardinal Wojtyla is Vice-President of the Conference.Vice-President of the Episcopal ConferenceMarch 15, 1969
The Polish Theological Society publishes "The Acting Person"
The Polish Theological Society (PTT) of Krakow publishes "The Acting Person" (Osoba i cyzn).The Polish Theological Society publishes "The Acting Person"December 1, 1969
Is elected to the Council of the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops.
Is elected to the Council of the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops.Is elected to the Council of the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops.October 5, 1971
Card. Wojtyla presides over the Polish delegation
Card. Wojtyla presides over the Polish delegation at the international conference in Rome for the preparations of the new Apostolic Constitution for Ecclesiastical Studies.Card. Wojtyla presides over the Polish delegationNovember 22, 1976
Receives a doctorate "honoris causa" from Johannes Guttenberg University
Receives a doctorate "honoris causa" from Johannes Guttenberg University, Mainz.Receives a doctorate "honoris causa" from Johannes Guttenberg UniversityJune 23, 1977
Present at the funeral of Paul VI.
Present at the funeral of Paul VI.Present at the funeral of Paul VI.August 11, 1978
John Paul I is elected Pope
John Paul I (Albino Luciani) is elected Pope.John Paul I is elected PopeAugust 26, 1978
Funeral of Pope John Paul I
Leaves for the funeral of Pope John Paul I.Funeral of Pope John Paul IOctober 3, 1978
Cardinal Karol Wojtyla is elected 264th Pope at approximately 5:15 p.m
Cardinal Karol Wojtyla is elected 264th Pope at approximately 5:15 p.m. He is the 263rd Successor of Peter.Cardinal Karol Wojtyla is elected 264th Pope at approximately 5:15 p.mOctober 16, 1978
Takes first trip abroad
Takes first trip abroad, to Dominican Republic, Mexico and the Bahamas.Takes first trip abroadJanuary 25, 1979
Pope says Mass at the site of the Birkenau concentration camp, Auschwitz
The pope says Mass at the site of the Birkenau concentration camp, the largest of 36 camps in a complex known collectively as Auschwitz.Pope says Mass at the site of the Birkenau concentration camp, AuschwitzJune 7, 1979
John Paul II visits the United States for the first time as pope.
John Paul II visits the United States for the first time as pope and addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York.John Paul II visits the United States for the first time as pope.September 29, 1979
Pope is shot in the abdomen by a young Turk named Mehmet Ali Agca.
Pope John Paul II is shot in the abdomen and hand in St. Peter's Square and seriously wounded. Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk, is arrested. The pope spends 22 days in a hospital.Pope is shot in the abdomen by a young Turk named Mehmet Ali Agca.May 13, 1981
Spanish priest lunges at the pope with a bayonet in Fatima, Portugal
A Spanish priest lunges at the pope with a bayonet during the first day of a papal trip to Fatima, Portugal. John Paul is unhurt.Spanish priest lunges at the pope with a bayonet in Fatima, PortugalMay 12, 1982
Calls for the heads of government to end to the arms race
Calls for the heads of government of the United States and the Soviet Union to negotiate an end to the arms race.Calls for the heads of government to end to the arms raceSeptember 29, 1983
Meets with and forgives his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca
The pope meets with and forgives his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in prison in Rome.Meets with and forgives his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali AgcaDecember 27, 1983
The United States and the Vatican establish full diplomatic relations.
The United States and the Vatican establish full diplomatic relations.The United States and the Vatican establish full diplomatic relations.January 10, 1984
Historic visit to Rome's main synagogue
John Paul II prays at Rome's main synagogue, the first ever recorded visit of a pope to a synagogue.Historic visit to Rome's main synagogueApril 13, 1986
Official visit of U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
Official visit of U.S. President Ronald Reagan.Official visit of U.S. President Ronald Reagan.June 6, 1987
Official visit of U.S. President George H.W. Bush.
Official visit of U.S. President George H.W. Bush.Official visit of U.S. President George H.W. Bush.May 27, 1989
Receives Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at the Vatican
Receives Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at the Vatican in the first ever meeting between a pope and a Kremlin chief.Receives Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at the VaticanDecember 1, 1989
Issues first encyclical on social issues.
Issues first encyclical on social issues since the fall of communism in Europe, giving qualified approval to capitalism but warning rich against taking advantage of poor.Issues first encyclical on social issues.May 1, 1991
Agreement signed establishing formal diplomatic ties between Israel and Vatican.
Agreement signed establishing formal diplomatic ties between Israel and Vatican.
Agreement signed establishing formal diplomatic ties between Israel and Vatican.December 30, 1993
John Paul II reaffirms the church's opposition to female priests
John Paul II reaffirms the church's opposition to female priests in a letter to bishops, writing that the church "has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the church's faithful."John Paul II reaffirms the church's opposition to female priestsMay 30, 1994
Publishes his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope.
Publishes his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope.Publishes his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope.October 20, 1994
Issues encyclical "Gospel of Life," and condemns spreading "culture of death"
Issues encyclical "Gospel of Life," and condemns spreading "culture of death," including abortion, euthanasia, experimentation on human embryos. The statement comes in the 11th encyclical -- a special letter reserved for matters of extreme importance to the church -- of John Paul's papacy.Issues encyclical "Gospel of Life," and condemns spreading "culture of death"March 25, 1995
Meets with Cuban President Fidel Castro.
Meets with Cuban President Fidel Castro.Meets with Cuban President Fidel Castro.November 19, 1996
Vatican issues We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, or Holocaust
Vatican issues We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, or Holocaust, expressing remorse for the cowardice of some Christians during World War II but defending the actions of wartime Pope Pius XII.Vatican issues We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, or HolocaustMarch 16, 1998
Celebrates 20th anniversary as pope, asking for prayers to fulfill his mission
Celebrates 20th anniversary as pope, asking for prayers to fulfill his mission "until the end."Celebrates 20th anniversary as pope, asking for prayers to fulfill his missionOctober 18, 1998
Gives permission to start the cause of beatification for Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Gives permission to start the cause of beatification for Mother Teresa of Calcutta.Gives permission to start the cause of beatification for Mother Teresa of Calcutta.March 1, 1999
Mehmet Ali Agca is granted clemency & extradited to Turkey
Mehmet Ali Agca, who attempted to assassinate John Paul II in 1981, is granted clemency by Italian President Carlo Ciampi, and extradited to his native Turkey.Mehmet Ali Agca is granted clemency & extradited to TurkeyJune 13, 2000
Receives U.S. President George W. Bush.
Receives U.S. President George W. Bush.Receives U.S. President George W. Bush.May 28, 2002
A top Vatican official confirms pope has Parkinson's disease.
A top Vatican official publicly acknowledges for the first time what observers have suspected for a decade -- that John Paul II suffers from Parkinson's disease. The pope had long showed signs of Parkingson's, including slurred speech and trembling.A top Vatican official confirms pope has Parkinson's disease.May 17, 2003
U.S. President George W. Bush awards pontiff the Medal of Freedom.
U.S. President George W. Bush awards pontiff the Medal of Freedom.U.S. President George W. Bush awards pontiff the Medal of Freedom.June 4, 2004
The pope breathes heavily and gasps during an open-air Mass in Lourdes, France
The pope breathes heavily and gasps during an open-air Mass in Lourdes, France, during one of just two foreign trips during the year.The pope breathes heavily and gasps during an open-air Mass in Lourdes, FranceAugust 15, 2004
Rushed to a hospital in Rome with flu and difficulties breathing.
Rushed to a hospital in Rome with flu and difficulties breathing.Rushed to a hospital in Rome with flu and difficulties breathing.February 1, 2005
Returns to hospital after a relapse of the flu; undergoes a tracheotomy
Returns to hospital after a relapse of the flu; undergoes a tracheotomy to ease his breathing.Returns to hospital after a relapse of the flu; undergoes a tracheotomyFebruary 24, 2005
Vatican announces John Paul II has a high fever as a result of urinary tract infection
The Vatican announces that John Paul II has a high fever as a result of a urinary tract infection. He later suffers septic shock, meaning that bacteria had spread from his urinary tract to his blood, poisoning his blood stream and causing his blood vessels to collapse. The pope receives the sacrament for the sick and dying, formerly known as the last rites.Vatican announces John Paul II has a high fever as a result of urinary tract infectionMarch 31, 2005
Pope John Paul II dies at 84.
Pope John Paul II dies at 9:37 p.m. of septic shock and cardio-circulatory collapse. He was 84.Pope John Paul II dies at 84.April 2, 2005