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a childhood marked by 20th century history

Second son of a father soldier and of a mother primary school teacher, Karol Wojtyla is born in Wadowice on May 18th 1920, two years after Poland goes back to being independent, having lost its political autonomy at the end of the 18th century. This independence is however short, as Poland loses it again in 1939 when it is divided between Nazi Germany and USSR, and experiences later communist totalitarianism until 1989. Karol Wojtyla experiences those political changes and violence in a very trying family context: at 9 years old he loses his mother, then a few years later his elder brother. And in 1941, he loses his father. He’s only 21, and he’s already lost his entire family. However, his whole life is marked by hope.

John Paul II will come to be pope on October 16th 1978 until April 2nd 2005. His pontificate (26 years, 5 months and 18 days), which is the third longest in history after Saint Peter’s and Saint Pius IX, will mark the end of 20th century history.



Karol Wojtyla gets his hope in Christ but also in a deep love for the Virgin Mary. As a child, his mother teaches him to pray Mary, but he discovers the Treaty of the true devotion to the Holy Virgin by Louis-Marie Grignon de Montfort during the war, and decides to devote himself to her. As a bishop, he gets his motto Totus Tuus from the Treaty. As pope, he cares about keeping it, indicating therefore his total giving to Triun God by the hands of Mary who will protect and guide him. It is again in his honour that he decides to put the M of Mary on his episcopal coat of arms.




Before entering seminary, Karol Wojtyla studies literature at the University of Jagellon of Cracow, but the compulsory work imposed by the occupying Nazi forces interrupts his studies. From the start of the school year 1940 and for almost 4 years, Karol Wojtyla works in a stone quary and then in a chemical plant. That experience has brought him great concerns about social issues in the working class. In 1979, during his trip to Mexico, he declares to Monterrey workers: « I do not forget the difficult years of world war when I myself directly experienced a physical work like yours [...]. I perfectly know how important it is that work should not be a source of alienation and frustration, but that it should correspond to the superior dignity of Man ».
In 1991, in his encyclical Centesimus Annus, he also warns against a radical form of capitalism: « The marxist solution has failed, but marginalisation and exploitation phenomena still exist in the world, particularly in the third world, as well as the human alienation phenomena, particularly in the most advanced countries [...]. There even is a risk to see this radical ideology of capitalist kind, which refuses even for them to be taken into account, admitting theoretically that all try to directly face it is bound to fail, and that out of principle, awaits from it for the solution of free development of the market forces ».

priesthood and intellectual life

Karol Wojtyla enters the seminary of Cracow in 1942. Because of the Nazi occupation the seminary is reduced to secrecy and he has to keep working at the factory during the first two years of seminary. Despite difficulties, on November 1st 1946, the archbishop of Cracow, His Grace Sapieha whom Pius XII has just nominated cardinal, ordains him priest and sends him to pursuit his studies in Rome, at the pontifical university of the Angelicum.
After presenting his thesis in June 1948 on Saint John of the Cross, he is called back to Cracow to exercise pastoral activities. In 1953, he defends a thesis on the German philosopher Max Scheler, at the Polish University of Jagellon, closed the following year by the communists. In 1954, he is professor at the Lublin University and becomes chairman of ethics in 1957. As pope, John Paul II published fourteen encyclicals: four rather theological (about the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and Mary), three related to socio-economic issues (about work, solidarity, and the centenary of Rerum novarum), one about the evangelisation of the Slave countries, one about mission, one about morals, one about the human life, one about the links of faith and reason, one about ecumenicalism and one about the Holy Communion.





Father Wojtyla’s Intellectual practises do not prevent him from developing pastoral activities, mainly targeted to the young. John Paul II has for his whole life been particularly close to the young. This will especially be revealed with the World Youth Days. This particular link with the young shows both his trust and demand. John Paul II declares to the participants of the WYD in Rome: «Perhaps you will not have to shed your blood, but you will certainly be asked to be faithful to Christ! [...] Is it hard to believe in the Third Millennium? Yes! It is hard. There is no need to hide it. It is hard, but with the help of grace it can be done”.



Already as a young factory worker, he doesn’t give up on cultural activities. He enters a clandestine theatre company and writes various poetical and theatrical works, a few like « The Jeweller’s Shop » thereafter echoing even outside Poland. The Nazi occupying forces, like afterwards the communists try to break the cultural roots of the Polish identity. Karol Wojtyla’s student and theatrical activities are like a kind of resistance against the ideological and political oppression. As pope, he declares on June 2nd 1980, at the UNESCO in Paris: « I am the son of a Nation which has lived the biggest experiences in history, which neighbours sent to death several times again, but which survived and which remained the same. It has kept its identity, [...] not using its physical strength, but only using its culture. » This personal story meets the conviction of Council Vatican II which makes culture the essential concern between Church and men. John Paul II therefore naturally makes culture a major line of his pontificate and creates in 1982, the Pontifical Council for Culture. In 1993, he adds to it the Pontifical Council for dialogue with non-believers (created in 1965 by Paul VI) which task is to promote the encounter of cultures and the Gospel. In December 2000, he declares during the 34th World Day of Peace: « A culture refusing to refer to God loses its soul at the same time as its orientation, becoming a culture of death. »




Ordained auxiliary bishop of Cracow on September 28th 1958, as such father Wojtyła is called in at the Vatican II council, opened by pope John XXIII on October 11th 1962. During the council, mastering languages and theology he becomes the spokesperson of the Polish episcopacy, for which he got himself noticed him by future pope Paul VI. His Grace Wojtyła is invited to contribute personally engaging himself in writing the pastoral constitution "Gaudium et Spes". On January 13th 1964, during the Council, Paul VI nominates His Grace Wojtyła archbishop of Cracow, and the new archbishop takes up his duties on March 8th 1964. It is again Paul VI who will nominate His Grace Wojtyła cardinal, on June 28th 1967. After Paul VI’s death, A la mort de Paul on August 6th 1978, His Grace Wojtyła is cardinal electer and takes part in the conclave: John Paul Ist is elected on August 26th 1978. But the latter dies one month later, on September 28th 1978. 

Surprising everyone, the young cardinal Karol Wojtyła is then elected pope on October 16th 1978. Pope John Paul II sets himself the goal to developing Council Vatican II. The day after his election, he declares: « We first want to underline the permanent importance of Vatican’s II ecumenical Council, and this means that we will formally engage in applying it carefully. » In that perspective, John Paul II reforms the Catholic Church law by promulgating the new Code of Canon Law in 1983, and publishes the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992. It is again the heritage of the council that explains his attachment to the ecumenical effort and the publication of the encyclical Ut Unum Sint in 1995, which opens the dialogue with non-Catholic Christian communities on how to exercise the pontifical ministry. Efforts of aligning with Judaism and the interfaith dialogue are also aspects of the pontificate in the line of the Council.


the pope faces totalitarianisme

As a young man, Karol Wojtyla experiences the invasion of his country by the German army, then by the Russian army. This marks his life and his political thinking. As soon as the beginning of his pontificate, pope John Paul II visits Communist Poland. Popular gatherings triggered by his visits and his explicit support to the trade union Solidarnosc, plays a key role in the downfall of the communists in Poland (in 1989). This is the first act of the defeat of the eastern bloc, which will lead to the fall of the Berlin wall. This is why some say that John Paul II’s actions provoked the end of the “cold war”. His action in Poland is one of the ones particularly noticed of a pontificate marked by the defence of the human rights. During each of his various visits in the countries of the whole world, the one we call "the pilgrim pope” takes stock of the situation of the “human rights” in this country. In 1979, during his first encyclical, John Paul II declares: « Peace comes down to respect sacrosanct rights of man. [...], while war is born from the violation of those rights and leads to severer violations of those. ».
One of the last fights of John Paul II is his opposition to the beginning of the Iraq war by the United States. On January 13th 2003, in front of the diplomatic corps accredited by the Holy See, he declares: « No to war! It is never a fatality. It is always a human defeat ».