Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

Primary: Pope John Paul II

Alternate(s): Pope John Paul Karol Wojtyla

Pope John Paul II was elected on October 16, 1978, as the Bishop of Rome, the 264th successor to St. Peter. He died on April 2, 2005.

John Paul II ranks among the most influential pontiffs in the history of the Catholic Church. He served longer than all but two of his predecessors, Pope Pius IX and St. Peter himself. He is by far the most widely traveled of all popes, as well as the most prolific; he has almost certainly been seen in person by more people than anyone else in history.

[For in-depth resources on Pope John Paul, scroll down to the end of this short biography.]

Born in Wadowice, Poland in 1920, Karol Wojtyla was an energetic youth: an excellent student and an enthusiastic athlete. His mother died when he was 9, and his only brother a few years later; Karol spent most of his early years living with his father, a retired military officer. Father and son moved to Krakow when Karol enrolled as a student at the famed Jagiellonian University there.

World War II interrupted the young man's education, and he worked as a laborer-- first in a stone quarry, later in a chemical plant-- during the days, while active with an underground theater troupe in the evenings. It was also during World War II that he began secretly studying for the priesthood, eventually hiding in the archbishop's residence when the Nazi occupation began arresting seminarians.

He was ordained to the priesthood in 1946. After completing studies in Rome and Krakow that eventually brought him two doctoral degrees, he settled in to his duties as a parish priest, combining that pastoral work with a successful career as a theology professor at the Catholic University in Lublin.

In 1959 Father Wojtyla was named an auxiliary bishop, and in 1964 he became Archbishop of Krakow; he was elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope Paul VI in 1967. The young Polish prelate was an enthusiastic participant in the work of the Second Vatican Council, taking a particularly active role in drafting Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

The autumn of 1978 was a turbulent time at the Vatican. Pope Paul VI succumbed to a lengthy illness, and his immediate predecessor, Pope John Paul I, died suddenly after just 33 days in office. Gathering for third second conclave in barely over a month, the College of Cardinals selected Cardinal Wojtyla, then 58 years old, to be the first non-Italian pope in over 400 years.

From the outset, the papacy of John Paul II has had a galvanizing impact on the Catholic world. The energetic young Pontiff, who had once aspired to become an actor, showed a remarkable ability to communicate directly with large crowds. He undertook a busy travel schedule, explaining that he considered it his task to be the world's foremost missionary. Since 1978 he has made over 100 trips outside Italy (and another 250 inside that country)-- visiting over 130 countries, logging nearly 800,000 travel miles, and speaking to crowds that frequently exceeded 500,000.

His long pontificate has been dotted with achievements. Among the most significant:

  • John Paul II-- who had conducted a quiet power struggle for years with Communist authorities, during his tenure as Archbishop of Krakow-- played a pivotal role in the development of the Solidarity movement in his native Poland, and eventually in the collapse of the Soviet empire.
  • The Pope, who nourishes a fervent personal devotion to the Virgin Mary, has strongly encouraged the same devotion among the faithful. In 2002 he shocked the Catholic world by adding five new mysteries to the most popular traditional Marian prayer, the Rosary.
  • Since his days as a parish priest, working with young couples who would become lifelong friends, Wojtyla has labored to help the faithful understand marriage as a Christian vocation and a reflection of divine love. His weekly meditations on "the theology of the body" helped Catholics to understand human sexuality in a profound new way. At the same time, Pope John Paul ceaselessly exhorted Christians to preserve the "culture of life" in the face of attacks such as abortion, euthanasia, divorce, and contraception.
  • As a trained philosopher, the Pontiff insisted that religious faith could and should be reconciled with rational argument and scientific logic. His encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993) underlined the claims of absolute truth, and in Fides et Ratio (1998) he argued forcefully the Western culture has been damaged by the unnatural divorce of faith from reason.
  • When his pontificate began, John Paul was still a robust athlete, who enjoyed swimming, tennis, and long climbs through the Italian Alps, where he usually spent his summer vacation. But his years in office have taken a heavy toll on his health. In 1981 he barely survived an assassination attempt in which he was shot a point-blank range by a Turkish assailant, Mehmet ali Agca. (After his recovery, the Pope made a point of visiting his would-be assassin in prison, offering his forgiveness, and providing one of the most memorable photographic images of his pontificate.) He 1992 surgeons removed a tumor from his intestine, and in 1996 his appendix was removed.

    By the mid-1990s, Pope John Paul was clearly exhibiting the symptoms of Parkinson's disease: an increasing hesitancy in movement, rigidity of expression, trembling in his hands, and occasional difficulty in speaking clearly. Although these symptoms grew progressively more obvious, it was only in 2001 that a Vatican spokesman formally confirmed that the Pontiff was suffering from Parkinson's disease. Medication has eased the symptoms, but the Pope has been forced to cut back sharply on his physical activity.

    A complete listing of the Pope's encyclicals, speeches, apostolic letters, and other publications can be found on the Vatican web site

    Easily the best full-length biographical treatment of Pope John Paul is Witness to Hope by George Weigel.

    Interested readers may also enjoy Pope John Paul's own description of his life and his thoughts, recorded in a book-length interview with the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori and published as Crossing the Threshold of Hope.

    Pope John Paul's treatment of love, marriage, and the "theology of the body" can be found in Love and Responsibility