Saint John Paul II was born in Wadowice, Poland on May 18, 1920. His baptized name was Karol Wojtyla.
He was the youngest of three children born to Karol Wojtyla and his wife Emilia. His mother died before he was 9, and his older brother, a doctor, died when he was 12. He and his father then lived alone in a one-room apartment behind a church. His sister, Olga, had died before he was born.
Karol enjoyed poetry, religion and the theater. He and his father moved to Krakow in 1938 where he enrolled at Jagiellonian University studying literature and philosophy.
During the Nazi occupation, the Germans tried to destroy Polish identity and culture. To avoid deportation to Germany, Karol began working at a stone quarry. His father died in February of 1941. In 1942 Karol took a job at the Solvay chemical factory and began courses in the clandestine seminary under the direction of Archbishop Sapieha, Archbishop of Kraków. During this time he also joined a group of Polish patriots who wanted to preserve their culture. They called themselves the “Rhapsodic Theater.” They clandestinely performed plays, read poetry and discussed books. He became a good actor and singer.
In August of 1944 he and the other clandestine seminarians were moved by Archbishop Sapieha to his palace in Krakow where he was ordained on November 1, 1946.
He then earned two masters degrees and two doctorate degrees while studying in Rome and Kraków. In July 1948 he became a parish priest. He continued his studies and became a professor.
As a young priest, Father Karol ministered to Polish youth by joining them in kayaking and camping adventures and informally teaching them, especially about sexual morality, while the atheistic Polish Communist government was encouraging sexual promiscuity and legalizing abortion. His teachings on sexual morality were later included in his 1960 book, Love and Responsibility.
In 1958, Father Karol was appointed auxiliary Bishop of Kraków. For years he confronted the Polish Communist authorities. He demanded respect for human dignity and freedoms, especially freedom to worship. The Communists built a new city named Nowa Huta and declared it to be the first atheistic Polish city. They forbade the building of any church there. After almost twenty years of Bishop Karol’s insistence on the human right of free exercise of religion and demanding the right to erect a church, and celebrating open-air masses there, the church was finally built. Nowa Huta was the beginning of Polish Christians long struggle to defend the human dignity of the Polish people.
On December 30, 1963 Bishop Karol was appointed Archbishop of Kraków. On June 28, 1967 Pope Paul VI appointed him as a Cardinal. Upon the pope’s death in 1978, Cardinal Karol was elected as the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. He was only 58 years old.
As Pope John Paul II, he traveled the world in his New Evangelization and canonized more saints than all of his predecessors combined. He had a particular fondness for the youth and initiated the phenomena of world youth days where he preached to hundreds of thousands of youth throughout the world.
Most of the Pope’s teachings were founded on the truth of the dignity of the human person and human rights. He taught the Catholic truths on human life and sexuality; marriage and family; faith and reason; church and state and the free exercise of religion. Pope John Paul II’s insistence on respect for human dignity led to the collapse of Polish communism and eventually the fall of the Communist Soviet Empire.
On May 13, 1981, Pope John Paul II was the victim of an assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square. In May of 1982, he went on a pilgrimage to Fatima, Portugal to thank the Blessed Virgin Mary for her maternal protection in saving his life and to consecrate the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. On December 27, 1983 he visited Ali Agca in his Roman prison and forgave him for his assassination attempt.
Pope John Paul II ushered the Church into the third millennium, exhorting us to personal holiness. He promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church and reformed the Code of Canon Law.
In his last years, Pope John Paul II taught us the gospel of suffering. He continued to do all that he could with his debilitating Parkinson’s disease, humiliating himself in public appearances and speeches through his trembling and bloated body. He died at home surrounded by beloved friends, receiving nutrition through a feeding tube and comfort care. When his body could no longer digest the nutrition, he had the feeding tube removed and died soon thereafter. In total recognition and acceptance of his coming death, he wrote his very last words for his friend Archbishop Diwitch, “Totus Tuus”, his papal motto, meaning “totally yours” Jesus through Mary, according to the teachings of St. Louis de Montfort.
Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005 after long suffering from Parkinson’s disease. He died on the eve of a feast instituted by him, The Feast of Divine Mercy. He was 84 years old and had served as Pope for 26 years. He was declared “blessed” because of the holiness of his life and the miraculous healing of a nun who suffered from Parkinson’s disease. This was attributed to his intercession. He was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI on May 1, 2011, The Feast of Divine Mercy. His feast day is October 22, the date of his liturgical inauguration as Pope.