Biography of Pope John Paul II

Biography of Pope John Paul II

: "This article contains expanded biographical information about Pope John Paul II".

Pope John Paul II reigned as pope of the Roman Catholic Church and sovereign of Vatican City for almost 27 years. The first non-Italian to serve in office since the Dutch-German Pope Adrian VI died in 1523, John Paul II's reign was the third-longest in the history of the Papacy. Although John Paul II's reign was marked by a continuing decline of Catholicism in the developed countries of the West, at the same time there was an expansion of the church's role in the Third World and Communist East Europe. And John Paul's election to the papacy is credited by many with fomenting the changes in eastern Europe that eventually led to the downfall of the communist states and the emergence of democratic regimes.

Early life

The young priest

Karol Wojtyła was ordained a priest on 1 November, 1946, age 26, by the Archbishop of Kraków, Adam Stefan Sapieha. He then travelled to Rome to begin doctoral studies in the Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Thomas Aquinas, commonly known as the "Angelicum". There he became well versed in theology and politics. He studied writings of pope Gregory I, the teachings of Saint John of the Cross, the phenomenology of Max Scheler. He also studied Yves Congar, an important theoretician of ecumenism. He lived for two years in Rome in the Belgian College. The college was small with twenty-two resident student-priests and seminarians, among them five Americans. In this polyglot environment, Wojtyła could improve his French and practice his German, while he began to study Italian and English. In his doctoral thesis, which examined St John of the Cross's understanding of faith, Wojtyła emphasized the personal nature of the human encounter with God. Returning to Poland in the summer of 1948, his first pastoral assignment was to the village of Niegowić, fifteen miles from Kraków.

In March 1949, he was transferred to Saint Florian's parish in Kraków. He taught ethics at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and subsequently at the Catholic University of Lublin. Wojtyła gathered a group of fewer than twenty young people, who began to call themselves "Rodzinka", the "little family", who met for prayer, philosophical discussion, and helping the blind and sick. Rodzinka continued to grow. Wojtyła's young friends began to call him "Wujek" (Uncle) to avoid outsiders from guessing he was a priest on outside trips. As the Wojtyła's circle grew, and their bond deepened, several weddings occurred in the group. Eventually there were some 200 people in his circle, which came to be called "Środowisko", meaning roughly "milieu". Wojtyła and his group went on both skiing and kayaking trips annually. On the annual kayaking trip, Wojtyła used to have a two-man kayak and others would join him for conversation or spiritual direction. Mass was celebrated using an overturned kayak as an altar, and two paddles as a cross. Once, in 1955, the kayakers took part in an international competition through a gorge on the Dunajec River. "Wujek"'s kayak was punctured and sank at the finish line. Fr Wojtyła wrote a series of articles in Kraków's Catholic newspaper "Tygodnik Powszechny" ("Universal Weekly") dealing with contemporary church issues.

Karol Wojtyła's literary work blossomed in his first dozen years as a priest. The war, life under communism, and his pastoral responsibilities all fed his poems and plays. These were published under two pseudonyms-Andrzej Jawień, and Stanisław Andrzej Gruda. He used these pseudonyms firstly to distinguish his literary from his religious writings, which were published under his own name, and also so that his literary work would be considered on their own merits rather than as clerical curiosities.

Bishop and Cardinal

On 5 August 1958, while on a two-week "Środowisko" kayaking trip on the river Lyne in north-eastern Poland Karol Wojtyła received a letter ordering him to report immediately to the primate, Cardinal Wyszynski, in Warsaw. When he arrived at the primate's office, the cardinal informed him that on bishop Baziak, apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Kraków. Wojtyła accepted the nomination and went straight to the Ursuline convent, where he knocked on the door and asked if he could come in to pray. Wojtyła amazed the nuns by remaining prostrate on the floor for some time in front of the tabernacle. Pope John Paul II recounts in his book "Rise, Let us be on our Way" how he entered a room a full of priests, after news had been received of his appointment as auxiliary Bishop, when Archbishop Baziak called out "Habemus papam" ("We have a Pope"). He suggests that these words may be seen as prophetic in the light of subsequent events. And so Karol Wojtyła found himself, at thirty-eight, the youngest bishop in Poland. He was consecrated a bishop by Archbishop Baziak on the feast of St. Wenceslaus, 28 September, 1958 in Wawel Cathedral in Kraków.

Bishop Wojtyła began an annual custom, in 1959, of celebrating Christmas midnight Mass in an open field in Nowa Huta, a new industrial town built by the communists not far from Kraków and the first town in Polish history deliberately built without a church. (The measured but persistent pressure by the Catholics would eventually succeed, and in 1977 a church was built in Nowa Huta.)

Archbishop Eugeniusz Baziak died in June 1962 and on 16 July Karol Wojtyła was elected as "Vicar Capitular", or temporary administrator, of the Archdiocese until an Archbishop could be appointed. On 5 October, 1962, Bishop Karol Wojtyła departed for Rome to take part in the Second Vatican Council. Being young and having relatively low position in the hierarchy, Wojtyła sat next to the door of St. Peter's basilica. Prior to the council, Bishop Wojtyła had sent an essay to the commissioners preparing for the Council suggesting that the world wanted to know what the church had to say about the human person and the human condition. What was the Church's answer to modernity's widespread "despair about any and all human existence?"

On 30 December 1963, Pope Paul VI appointed him Archbishop of Kraków.

He made contributions to two of the most historic and influential products of the council, the "Decree on Religious Freedom" (in Latin, "Dignitatis Humanae") and the "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World" ("Gaudium et Spes").

In 1960, Wojtyła had published the influential book Love and Responsibility, a defense of the traditional Church teachings on sex and marriage from a new philosophical standpoint. In 1967, he was instrumental in formulating the encyclical "Humanae Vitae" which deals with those same issues and forbids abortion and artificial birth control.

In 1967 Pope Paul VI elevated him to cardinal.

A Pope from Poland

In August 1978, following Paul's death, he voted in the Papal Conclave that elected Albino Luciani, the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, as Pope John Paul I. At sixty-five, Luciani was a young man by Papal standards and Wojtyła, then fifty-eight, could have expected to participate in another Papal conclave before reaching the age of eighty (the upper age limit for cardinal electors). However, he could hardly have expected that his second conclave would come so soon, for on 28 September 1978, after only 33 days as Pope, John Paul I was discovered dead in the papal apartments. In October 1978 Wojtyła returned to Vatican City to participate in the second conclave in less than two months. Voting in the second conclave was divided between two particularly strong candidates: Giuseppe Siri, the Archbishop of Genoa, and Giovanni Benelli, the Archbishop of Florence and a close associate of Pope John Paul I. In early ballots, Benelli came within nine votes of victory. However, Wojtyła secured election as a compromise candidate, in part through the support of the Cardinal of Vienna Franz König and others who had previously supported Giuseppe Siri.

The next day he celebrated Mass together with the College of Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel. After the mass, he delivered his first "Urbi et Orbi" (a traditional blessing) message, broadcast worldwide via radio.

The election of a cardinal from a communist country reminded many of the plot of the book (1963) and film (1968) The Shoes of the Fisherman.

Like his immediate predecessor, Pope John Paul II dispensed with the traditional Papal Coronation and instead received ecclesiastical investiture with the simplified Papal Inauguration.

Assassination attempts

On 13 May 1981, John Paul II was shot and nearly killed by Mehmet Ali Ağca, a Turkish gunman, as he entered Saint Peter's Square to address an audience. He was rushed to the Agostino Gemelli University Polyclinic, where he underwent emergency surgery and extensive blood transfusion. Ağca was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment. In his will, the Pope described his survival as a "miracle" and believed the Virgin Mary intervened and prevented his death.

Who commissioned the murder attempt remains controversial. In late March 2005 documents originating from the former Soviet states seemed to indicate that the KGB was responsible for setting up the attack, [ [,1564,1538173,00.html "Deutsche Welle", 2005] ] although this is disputed. Speculations about the possible motives of the alleged Soviet conspiracy abound. Perhaps the Soviets were afraid of the effect of the Polish pope on the stability of its Eastern European Soviet satellites, particularly Poland. Other speculation has accused factions in the Vatican, especially the so-called "freemason" faction, opposed to Wojtyła and Opus Dei, of which Cardinal Casaroli was a leading figure.

Ali Ağca himself remains reticent to disclose the truth about the origins of his assassination attempt, although he has often hinted that he received some help from inside the Vatican. Finally, whoever the commissioner was, it has been suggested that Ağca, an excellent marksman, would have killed the Pope if he had intended to do so, and that his mission was to scare the Pope rather than to kill him. However, no definitive evidence of these things has yet come to light.

In November 1982, in Rome, Serghiei Ivanov Antonov, an officer of the Bulgarian airline "Balkan air" was arrested as the "Bulgarian plot" was investigated. He and two other Bulgarian agents were later acquitted by an Italian Criminal court (1986 and 1987) for lack of evidence.

Two days after the Christmas of 1983, John Paul visited the prison where his would-be assassin was being held. The two spoke privately for some time. John Paul II said of the meeting, "What we talked about will have to remain a secret between him and me. I spoke to him as a brother whom I have pardoned and who has my complete trust."

Another assassination attempt took place on 12 May, 1982, in city|Fatima|Portugal when a man tried to stab John Paul II with a bayonet, but was stopped by security guards. The assailant, an ultraconservative Spanish priest named Juan María Fernández y Krohn, reportedly opposed the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and called the pope an "agent of Moscow." He served a six-year sentence that was followed by his expulsion from Portugal.

The Pope and some Catholics believe that the assumption of the papacy by Karol Wojtyła was predicted decades earlier by Padre Pio. The same Capuchin friar also predicted that Wojtyła's reign would be brief and end bloodily, a prophecy that the latter's shooting almost vindicated. The Vatican and the Pope believed that the assassination attempt was also predicted in the third secret of the Three Secrets of Fatima. [ [ Bertone] ]


As the youngest pope elected since Pope Pius IX in 1846, John Paul II entered the papacy as a healthy, relatively young man who hiked, swam and went skiing. However, after over twenty-five years on the papal throne, the 1981 assassination attempt, and a number of cancer scares, John Paul's physical health declined. He had a tumour removed from his colon in 1992, dislocated his shoulder in 1993, broke his femur in 1994, and had his appendix removed in 1996.

An orthopaedic surgeon confirmed in 2001 that Pope John Paul II was suffering from Parkinson's disease, as international observers had suspected for some time; this was acknowledged publicly by the Vatican in 2003. He had difficulty speaking more than a few sentences at a time, as well as trouble hearing. He also developed severe arthritis in his right knee following a hip replacement, and therefore rarely walked in public. Nevertheless, he continued to tour the world. Those who met him late in his life said that although physically he was in poor shape, mentally he remained fully alert.

Towards the end of his Papacy, there were those both within and outside the church who thought that the Pope should resign or retire. Even term limits for Popes were suggested. However, as John Paul had indicated his acceptance of God's will that he should be Pope, he was determined to stay in office until his death, although his private papers show that he gave resignation serious consideration in 2002.

On 1 February, 2005, the Pope was taken to the Agostino Gemelli University Polyclinic in Rome suffering from acute inflammation of the larynx and laryngo-spasm, brought on by a bout of influenza. The Vatican reported the following day that his condition had stabilised, but he would remain in the hospital until fully recovered. The pope appeared in public on 6 February to deliver the final lines of the Angelus blessing in a hoarse voice from the window of his hospital room. He missed the Ash Wednesday ceremonies in St Peter's on 9 February for the first time in his 26-year papacy, and returned to the Vatican on 10 February. [ [ "BBC News"] (retrieved 10 February, 2005)]

On 24 February, 2005 the Pope began having trouble breathing and also had a fever, and he was rushed back to the Gemelli Hospital, where a tracheotomy was successfully performed. An aide to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said that John Paul was "serene" after waking up following the surgery. [ [ "Associated Press" via MSNBC] (retrieved 3 March, 2005)] He raised his hand and attempted to say something, but his doctors advised him not to try speaking. The Pope gave 'silent blessings' from his hospital window on Sunday 27 February and Sunday 6 March, and is said to have spoken in German and Italian during a working meeting with Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) in his 10th floor suite of the Gemelli on Tuesday 1 March. Cardinal Ratzinger told international press: "the Pope spoke to me in German and Italian. He was completely lucid. I brought the Holy Father greetings from the plenary of the Congregation for the divine cult, which is meeting at this moment in the Vatican. The Holy Father will be working on material, which I gave him today. I am happy to see him fully lucid and mentally capable of saying the essential matters with his own voice. We usually speak in German. The details are unimportant--he spoke of essential matters."

During the Angelus of Sunday 13 March The Pope was able to speak to pilgrims for the first time since he was readmitted to hospital. Later that day he returned to the Vatican for the first time in nearly a month. [ [ "BBC News"] (retrieved 13 March, 2005)] On Palm Sunday (20 March) the Pope made a brief appearance at his window to greet pilgrims. He was cheered by thousands of the faithful as he silently waved an olive branch. It was the first time in his pontificate that he could not officiate at Palm Sunday Mass. He watched it on his TV in his apartment overlooking St Peter's Square.

On 22 March, there were renewed concerns for the Pope's health after reports stated that he had taken a turn for the worse and was not responding to medication. [ [ Lorenzi] (retrieved 22 March, 2005)] On 24 March, Colombian Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo performed the rite of the washing of the feet, in the Vatican's St Peter's Basilica. The cardinal stood in for Pope John Paul II at a Holy Thursday ceremony at the Vatican. He said the ailing Pontiff was 'serenely abandoning' himself to God's will. The Pope, whose health was precarious following the throat surgery in February, watched the service on television from his Vatican apartments. On 27 March, Easter day, the Pope appeared at his window in the Vatican for a short time. Angelo Sodano read the Urbi et Orbi message while the Pope blessed the people with his own hand. He tried to speak but he could not. By the end of the month, speculation was growing, and was finally confirmed by the Vatican officials, that he was nearing death.


On 31 March, 2005 the Pope developed a "very high fever caused by a urinary tract infection", [ [ "BBC News"] (retrieved 1 April, 2005)] but was not taken to the hospital, apparently in accordance with his wishes to die in the Vatican. Later that day, Vatican sources announced that John Paul II had been given the Anointing of the Sick (informally known as Last Rites) of the Roman Catholic Church, the first time that the pontiff had received the sacrament since the 1981 assassination attempt on his life. It is unclear if he received the Apostolic Pardon as well. [ [ "CNN"] (retrieved 31 March, 2005)]

On 1 April, his condition worsened drastically, with his heart and kidneys rapidly failing. The Pope had been fitted with a second feeding tube in his nose to help boost his nutritional intake as a result of his fever. Reports from the Vatican early that morning reported that the Pope had suffered a heart attack, but remained awake. [ [ D'Emilio, 2005] ] Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro Valls denied the reports of the heart attack, but said the Pope had suffered a "cardio-circulatory collapse" and called the Pope's condition "very serious". [ [ "CNN"] (retrieved 2 April, 2005)]

Several Italian media agencies reported the Pope's death at 20:20 CEST (18:20 UTC), but soon afterwards, the Vatican denied that the Pope was dead, and stories changed. TV Sky Italia reported that his heart and brain were functioning.

At around 00:37 CEST on 2 April (22:37 1 April UTC), a Vatican spokesman gave a further briefing on the Pope's health and confirmed that the Pope had had the Last Rites. He refused to be taken to the hospital, and met with his closest associates, among them Cardinal Ratzinger, who said, "he knows that he is dying and he gave me his last goodbye." The Pope also requested that he be read the meditations said on the Stations of the Cross a few days before.

His final hours were marked by an overwhelming number of younger people who kept vigil outside his Vatican apartments. In his last message, specifically to the youth of the world, he said: "I have looked for you. Now you have come to me. And I thank you."

Early in the evening, the Vatican announced that his condition "remains very serious. In late morning, the high fever developed." However, "when addressed by members of his household, he responds correctly."

At approximately 19:00 CEST (17:00 UTC), Italian news sources claimed that Pope John Paul II had lost consciousness. At least one medical centre stated that there was no more hope for him. The Vatican published a press release refuting the claim but conceding the Pope's kidneys had stopped functioning. The ANSA news agency reported around half an hour later that he lost consciousness.

According to Father Jarek Cielecki, the Pope's last word before death was "Amen"; then he closed his eyes. [ [ "La Repubblica"] (retrieved 2 April, 2005)] In his private apartments, at 21:37 CEST (19:37 UTC) on 2 April, Pope John Paul II died, 46 days short of his 85th birthday. His death certificate listed septic shock and heart failure as primary causes of death. [ [ The Vatican] (retrieved 4 April, 2005)] [ [ "Reuters"] (retrieved 3 April, 2005)]

Present at the moment of death were his two personal secretaries, Archbishop Stanisław Dziwisz and Mieczysław Mokrzycki, Marian Jaworski, Archbishop Stanisław Ryłko and Father Tadeusz Styczeń. The pope was assisted by his personal physician Dr. Renato Buzzonetti, with two doctors, Dr. Alessandro Barelli and Dr. Ciro D'Allo and their respective nurses who had been on call if needed. Also three nuns who were handmaidens of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, helped him in his final hours.

Immediately afterwards Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Sodano arrived, as did the Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church, Eduardo Martínez Somalo, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, substitute of the Secretariat of State, and Archbishop Paolo Sardi, vice-Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church. Thereafter, Cardinal Ratzinger, dean of the College of Cardinals, and Jozef Tomko were able to enter the apartments.

World reactions

A crowd of over 2 million within Vatican City, over one billion Catholics worldwide, and many non-Catholics mourned John Paul II. The pope always said that his death should be celebrated as the passage to the next stage of his eternal life. The crowd in the Vatican clapped when the announcement of his death was made, following a traditional Italian custom signifying respect.

In Poland, Catholics gathered at the church at Wadowice, the birthplace of the pontiff. State television cancelled all comedy-related shows beginning April 1, 2005, and began showing mass. The Poles, who had a deep sense of devotion towards the pontiff and referred to him as their "father," were particularly devastated by his death. The government declared six days of mourning for him.

Many world leaders expressed their condolences and ordered flags in their countries lowered to half-staff:

* In Argentina students observed a moment of silence before each class on the first school day after the Pope's death. President of Argentina Nestor Kirchner stated that "We're millions that are crying about John Paul II; his teaching is going to follow us all our life, permanently."
* Australian Prime Minister John Howard said Pope John Paul should be remembered as a freedom fighter against communism, and a great Christian leader. [ [ ABC Radio interview transcript, Australia] (3 April, 2005)]
* In Brazil, the country with the world's largest Catholic population, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, expressed the sorrow of the Brazilian people. [] The government declared a 7-day official mourning period. [] . On the eve of the Pope's death, the Brazilian Senate interrupted its session and the senators recited in chorus the Lord's prayer for the Pope's recovery. After the death of the Pope, the Senate observed one minute of silence.
* Prime Minister of Canada Paul Martin said, "For a quarter century, Pope John Paul II served as a symbol of love and faith, peace and compassion.... Our grief today is the grief of the world." [] On 4 April, Martin and other Canadian leaders paid tribute to the pope in the House of Commons. [] Flags were lowered to half-staff throughout the country and at several diplomatic missions; they remained there through the day of the funeral. [] The province of Manitoba opened a book of condolences for citizens to sign. []
* In Chile, the government declared a 3-day official mourning period. President Ricardo Lagos noted that "...John Paul II won't stay away from us. His name became part of our history, his thoughts will be an always present inspiration to build a more fair country and a more peaceful world for all of us." [ [] (in Spanish)]
* Colombian president Alvaro Uribe Velez decreed that flags on government buildings and embassies would be lowered to half-staff for two days. The president's statement emphasised the late pope's struggle for world peace. [ [] (in Spanish)]
* Cuban authorities allowed Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino to make a rare statement on state television: "This is a man who has carried the moral weight of the world for 26 years... turning himself into the only moral reference for humanity in recent years of wars and difficulties." Cuban Government declared three days of mourning.
* Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh paid tribute in the book of condolences at the Vatican Embassy in New Delhi. [] The Indian Government declared three days of mourning.
* In the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth II expressed her "deep sorrow" at the death of Pope John Paul II and remembered his efforts at promoting peace throughout the world. Prime Minister Tony Blair said that the world has lost a religious leader who was "revered across people of all faiths and none." []
* Flags over the White House and other public buildings in the United States were ordered lowered to half-staff until sundown on the day of John Paul II's interment. [] President George W. Bush expressed his regret at the loss of a "champion of human freedom," an "inspiration to millions of Americans" and a "hero for the ages" [] and became the first sitting U.S. President to attend a papal funeral. His father and his predecessor (George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton) accompanied him to the funeral, while his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, attended the installation of the new pope.

Numerous countries with a Catholic majority declared mourning for John Paul II. The government of the Philippines declared mourning until the day of the funeral. Gabon and Paraguay declared five days of mourning, Costa Rica four. Three days of mourning were declared by the governments of Italy, Portugal (the days preceding the funeral, although national flags in public buildings were lowered on the first Monday after the Pope's death), Bolivia, Cape Verde, Croatia, East Timor, Haiti, Malawi and the Seychelles. Peru and Spain declared one day of mourning.

Egypt and Lebanon were also among the countries without a Catholic majority that declared three days mourning for the Pope. Kosovo declared two days mourning, and Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina declared one day. In the Republic of Macedonia, all cultural events were cancelled on the day following the Pope's death.

France and Germany ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff.

In marked contrast to other large Catholic countries, Ireland's Taoiseach Bertie Ahern declared that there would be no "national day of mourning as such." This has proved controversial with a sizeable portion of the Irish population. Commentators have stated that the Irish reaction is somewhat muted and could be indicative of the Irish society and politics moving decisively away from the high esteem in which it previously held the Church.

Many non-Catholic religious leaders throughout the world also expressed condolences.

"John Paul the Great"

Since the death of John Paul II, a number of clergy at the Vatican, including Angelo Cardinal Sodano in the written form of his homily at the Mass of Repose, have been referring to the late pontiff as John Paul the Great. The Italian newspaper "Corriere della Sera" called him even "The Greatest". The title "The Great" has so far been reserved to two popes from the first millennium, Leo the Great and Gregory the Great. Scholars of Canon law state that there is no official process for declaring a pope "Great"; the title establishes itself through popular, and continued, usage.


The death of Pope John Paul II set into motion centuries-old rituals and traditions dating back to medieval times: crushing of the Ring of the Fisherman, solemn procession from the Apostolic Palace through St. Peter's Square, Mass of Repose, Rite of Visitation, Mass of Requiem, and interment.

The Testament of Pope John Paul II published on 7 April revealed that the pontiff contemplated being buried in his native Poland but left the final decision to The College of Cardinals. The College of Cardinals in passing preferred burial beneath St. Peter's Basilica, honouring the pontiff's request to be placed "in bare earth."

The Rite of Visitation took place from 4 April and extended through the morning of 8 April at St. Peter's Basilica. On 8 April, 10:00 a.m. CEST (08:00 UTC), the Mass of Requiem was offered by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger by virtue of his office as Dean of the College of Cardinals. It was concelebrated by the College of Cardinals and patriarchs of the Eastern Rite. After being sealed in three caskets, Pope John Paul II was interred in the grottoes under the basilica, the Tomb of the Popes. He was lowered into the tomb vacated by Pope John XXIII, who was moved by Pope John Paul II for beatification.

The funeral was the largest gathering of dignitaries gathered at one event. Security considerations were of primary concern and the Italian Military was put on high alert to ensure safety and prevention of a terrorist attack and to control the expected crowd of over 2 million people. seealso|List of dignitaries at the funeral of Pope John Paul II


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