Pope John Paul II: A Biographical Sketch

John Paul II: A Biographical Sketch

Karol Józef Wojtyla, known as John Paul II since his October 1978 election to the papacy, was born in Wadowice, a small city fifty kilometers from Kraków, on May 18, 1920. He was the second of two sons born to Karol Wojtyla and Emilia Kaczorowska. His mother died in 1929. His eldest brother Edmund, a doctor, died in 1932. His father, a noncommissioned army officer, died in 1941.

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He made his first Holy Communion at age nine and was confirmed at eighteen. Upon graduation from Marcin Wadowita high school in Wadowice, he enrolled in Kraków's Jagiellonian University and in a school for drama in 1938.

The Nazi occupation forces closed the university in 1939, and young Karol had to work in a quarry (from 1940-1944), and then in the Solvay chemical factory to earn his living and to avoid being deported to Germany.

In 1942, aware of his call to the priesthood, he began courses in the clandestine seminary of Kraków run by Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha, archbishop of Kraków. At the same time, Karol Wojtyla was one of the pioneers of the “Rhapsodic Theatre,” also clandestine.

After the Second World War, he continued his studies in the major seminary of Kraków, once it had reopened, and in the faculty of theology of the Jagiellonian University, until his priestly ordination in Kraków on November 1, 1946.

Soon after, Cardinal Sapieha sent him to Rome, where he worked under the guidance of the French Dominican Garrigou-Lagrange. He finished his doctorate in theology in 1948 with a thesis on the topic of faith in the works of St. John of the Cross. At that time, during his vacations, he exercised his pastoral ministry among the Polish immigrants of France, Belgium, and Holland.

In 1948, he returned to Poland and was vicar of various parishes in Kraków as well as chaplain for the university students until 1951, when he took up again his studies on philosophy and theology. In 1953, he defended a thesis on “Evaluation of the Possibility of Founding a Catholic Ethic on the Ethical System of Max Scheler” at Lublin Catholic University. Later, he became professor of moral theology and social ethics in the major seminary of Kraków and in the faculty of theology of Lublin.

On July 4, 1958, he was appointed auxiliary bishop of Kraków by Pope Pius XII, and was consecrated September 28, 1958, in Wawel Cathedral, Kraków, by Archbishop Baziak.

On January 13, 1964, he was nominated archbishop of Kraków by Pope Paul VI, who made him a cardinal June 26, 1967.

Besides taking part in Vatican Council II, including an important contribution to the elaboration of the Constitution Gaudium et spes, Cardinal Wojtyla participated in all the assemblies of the Synod of Bishops.

Since the start of his pontificate on October 16, 1978, Pope John Paul II completed more than 200 pastoral visits.

His principal documents include thirteen encyclicals, thirteen apostolic exhortations, eleven apostolic constitutions, and forty-one apostolic letters. He also published two books: Crossing the Threshold of Hope (October 1994) and Gift and Mystery: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of My Priestly Ordination (November 1996).

John Paul II presided at dozens of beatification and canonization ceremonies (almost 1,300 Blesseds proclaimed and more than 450 Saints) during his pontificate.

No other pope has encountered as many individuals as John Paul II did: more than 16 million pilgrims participated in the general audiences held on Wednesdays (more than one thousand). This figure does not include all other special audiences and religious ceremonies held (more than eight million pilgrims during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 alone) and the millions of faithful met during pastoral visits made in Italy and throughout the world. In addition, there were the numerous government personalities encountered during official visits, and in the audiences and meetings held with heads of state and with prime ministers. 

The following are some notable dates in the pontificate of John Paul II:

June 1979 First pilgrimage to Poland
September 1979 Pope begins four years of addresses on the “theology of the body”
October 1979 First pilgrimage to the United States
August 1980 Supports Solidarity trade union movement in Poland
May 13 1981 Pope is shot in St. Peter's Square
December 1983 Visits would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Acga in prison
June 1985 Declares the Catholic commitment to ecumenism “irrevocable”
October 1986 Invites world religious leaders for a day of prayer in Assisi
September 1987 Second pilgrimage to the United States
Fall 1989 Communist governments in Eastern Europe collapse
October 1992 Corrects Church's handling of the Galileo case
December 1992 Promulgates the Catechism of the Catholic Church
October 1994 Publishes Crossing the Threshhold of Hope
October 1995 Address to the United Nations in New York and third pilgrimage to United States
March 1998 Document We Remember reaches out to Jewish people
October 1998 Celebrates twentieth anniversary of his papacy
March 2000 Issues formal apology for misdeeds of the Church over the centuries
April 2 2005 Enters eternal life

from Go in Peace: A Gift of Enduring Love by John Paul II, edited by Joseph Durepos