He was born poor, in a small Polish town, at a time when the papacy seemed reserved exclusively for Italians. And yet Karol Wojtyla not only became pope but is likely to go down as one of history's greatest pontiffs.
Wojtyla would have been noteworthy simply because he was the first Slavic pope and the first non-Italian to hold the office since Hadrian VI, a Dutchman, assumed the Throne of St. Peter in 1522. But John Paul II's legacy rests not on historical footnotes but on 20 years of energetic activity, both within the Roman Catholic Church and the world at large. “He will go down as a great pope and one of the greatest figures of the 20th century,” says Drew Christiansen, a Jesuit priest and fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C.
It is his dual legacy, as a religious and political leader, that makes John Paul a rare figure among modern popes. Others have had an impact on the church, too, like John XXIII (1958-1963), who launched the Second Vatican Council. But few have also been such important players in world affairs.
Indeed, John Paul's primary legacy may be the role he played in ending communism in Eastern Europe. In 1979, on his first trip back to his homeland after becoming pope the previous year, this native son of Poland became a towering presence who was seen in the flesh by one in every three Poles. And although he didn't directly criticize the regime, his words and presence helped accelerate and expand the desire for change. “When all those people in Poland came together around that man, that was the beginning of the end,” says Michael Novak, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “Essentially, they said: 'There are so many more of us than we thought,' ”
Behind the scenes, John Paul engaged in secret negotiations with Lech Walesa's opposition Solidarity Trade Union and the communist government in order to help smooth the way for a transfer of power. The fall of communism in Poland, of course, lit a spark that led to the collapse of Soviet-dominated governments around the region and, eventually, to the breakup of the Soviet Union itself.
John Paul II arrives by “Popemobile” for a rally at Mexico City's Azteca stadium on Jan. 25, 1999. (Photo Credit: Reuters)
Within the Catholic Church, John Paul also has been a mover and shaker. During his reign, he has issued numerous encyclicals on subjects as varied as the role of women, the dignity of work and the dangers of relativism in modern thinking. “He's produced a strong record of social teachings, especially on important issues like the gap between rich and poor and the plight of immigrants,” says the Rev. Richard McBrien, a professor of theology at Notre Dame University.
John Paul has also single-handedly changed the image of the papacy through the foreign trips he has taken as pontiff. “He understood from the start the importance of breaking out of the Vatican and making direct contact with the people,” Christiansen says. Paul VI (1963-78) also traveled several times during his pontificate, breaking out of the traditional mold of stay-at-home popes. But it is John Paul's extensive travels (85 trips and counting) that have made the papacy much more visible and beloved at a time when image is an increasingly important commodity.
Wojtyla was born in 1920 in Wadowice, a small town in southern Poland. He was raised largely by his father, a retired army officer who had been widowed when Karol was just a child. During World War II and the German occupation, the 19-year-old Wojtyla was forced to give up his university studies and work as a manual laborer, first in a quarry and then a chemical factory. During those years, Karol risked his life by participating in an underground theater troupe. Indeed, the future pope even considered becoming an actor. But during the war, he decided to become a priest and entered the seminary secretly, since it was illegal under the Nazis to study for the priesthood.
Undated photo shows Pope John Paul II as a priest in training in Poland. (Photo Credit: Reuters)
In his 1994 book about his life and his beliefs, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul recalls: “Before entering the seminary, I met a layman named Jan Tyranowski, who was a true mystic. This man, whom I consider a saint, introduced me to the great Spanish mystics and in particular to Saint John of the Cross. Even before entering the underground seminary, I read the works of that mystic, especially his poetry. In order to read it in the original, I studied Spanish. That was a very important stage in my life. . . . I discovered the Church to be a community of salvation. In this Church I found my place and my vocation.”
Wojtyla was ordained in 1946, and after two years of study in Rome became a parish priest in rural Poland. Three years later, in 1951, Wojtyla began studying philosophy at Krakow's Jagiellonian University, earning a doctorate. In 1956 he became a professor of ethics at Lublin University.
From the moment he entered the priesthood, Wojtyla showed limitless energy for work and study. During his years as parish priest and teacher, he led countless seminars and wrote and published plays, poetry and articles on religious themes and issues.
His efforts did not go unnoticed. In 1958, at the age of 38, he was appointed as an auxiliary bishop. In 1963, Pope Paul VI made him archbishop of Krakow, the second most important church post in Poland. And in 1967, Paul VI named him a cardinal.
During these years, Wojtyla attended the celebrated Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), where his learning and the force of his intellect made him one of its most influential participants. Indeed, many of the cardinals who later voted for Wojtyla first got know him at the three-year council.
Pope Paul VI died in 1978 and was followed by John Paul I, who lived only 33 days after his election. When the College of Cardinals met again, they began looking for a young, vigorous candidate who could inject new life into the church. Wojtyla emerged as a contender after the first day of voting. On the third day he was elected, the youngest pontiff since 1846.
Since then, Wojtyla has rarely returned to Poland. And yet, intimates of the pontiff say, Poland is never far from John Paul's thoughts. Indeed, they say, every action he takes is influenced by his experiences in Poland, particularly living under Nazi and then Soviet domination. As a friend once put it: “You can take the pope out of Poland, but you can't take Poland out of the pope.”