On May 18, 1920, Karol Jozef Wojtyla was born in the Polish city of Wadowice, 56 kilometers south-west of Krakow. Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, the most traveled pope in history and the first non-Italian to hold this position since the 16th century. After high school, the future pope enrolled at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, where he studied philosophy and literature and played in a theater troupe. During the Second World War, the Nazis occupied Krakow and closed the university, forcing Wojtyla to seek work in a quarry and, later, in a chemical factory. In 1941, his mother, father and only brother were all dead, leaving him the only surviving member of his family.
Although Wojtyla was involved in the church all his life, it was not until 1942 that he began his seminary training. At the end of the war, he returned to school at Jagiellonian to study theology, becoming an ordained priest in 1946. He completed two doctorates and became a professor of moral theology and social ethics. On July 4, 1958, at the age of 38, he was appointed auxiliary bishop of Krakow by Pope Pius XII. He later became the city’s archbishop, where he defended religious freedom while the church began Vatican Council II, which would revolutionize Catholicism. He became cardinal in 1967, taking up the challenges of the life and work of a Catholic priest in Communist Eastern Europe. When asked if he feared reprisals from the Communist leaders, he replied, “I am not afraid of them. They are afraid of me. “
Wojtyla was slowly and slowly building a reputation as a powerful preacher and a man who was both intellectual and charismatic. However, when Pope John Paul I died in 1978 after only 34 days of reign, few suspected Wojtyla would be chosen to replace him. But, after seven ballots, the Sacred College of Cardinals chose the 58-year-old man, and he became the first and youngest Slavic Pope to be chosen in 132 years.
A conservative pontiff, the papacy of John Paul II was marked by his firm and steadfast opposition to communism and war, as well as to abortion, contraception, capital punishment and homosexual relations. He later spoke out against euthanasia, human cloning and stem cell research. He traveled extensively as a Pope, using the eight languages he spoke (Polish, Italian, French, German, English, Spanish, Portuguese and Latin) and his well-known personal charm, to connect with the Catholic faithful, as well that many people outside the fold.
On May 13, 1981, Pope John Paul II was shot dead in St. Peter’s Square by a Turkish political extremist, Mehmet Ali Agca. After his discharge from the hospital, the pope visited his alleged murderer in prison, where he had started serving a life sentence, and personally forgave him for his actions. The following year, another unsuccessful attempt was made on the life of the Pope, this time by a fanatical priest who opposed the Vatican II reforms.
Although this was only confirmed by the Vatican in 2003, many believe that Pope John Paul II began to suffer from Parkinson’s disease in the early 1990s. He began to develop disorders of the speech and had difficulty walking, although he continued to follow a physically demanding travel schedule. In his last years, he was forced to delegate many of his official duties, but he still found the strength to speak to the faithful from a Vatican window. In February 2005, the pope was hospitalized for complications from the flu. He died two months later.
Pope John Paul II is remembered for his fruitful efforts to end communism, as well as for building bridges with people of other faiths, and for offering the Catholic Church’s first apologies for its actions during the Second World War. He was succeeded by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI. Benedict XVI began the process of beatification of John Paul II in May 2005, and in 2014, John Paul II was canonized.