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  • Pope John Paul II - The Biography of the Vatican City State Sovereign

    November 08, 2018 12 min read

    Pope John Paul II

    There are almost 200 countries in the world. Some are big. Some are small. Some are just the size of a city district - like Vatican City State.

    Vatican City, established in 1929 during the Lateran Treaty or the Lateran Pact, but used as headquarters of the catholic church from way before, is territorially just a part of Rome, Italy, but officially serves as an independent state. Before that, there used to be a territory called the Papal States, all from 754 AD to 1870, also known by the name the States of The Church and the Pontifical States. The territory changed its borders over the years, from the Adriatic Sea to the Tyrrhenian Sea, including regions of Latium, Umbria, Marche and eastern Emilia - Romagna. The Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo in the city under the same name was served for centuries as a summer residence and a vacation spot for the pope, but it is now a museum.

    Today, Vatican’s population counts about 1000 people and it is the world’s smallest state, both by area and by population. It is a popular place for tourism, as it has its own interesting spots, like the Vatican Museums.

    The state is ruled by pope, the head of the Catholic Church, simply speaking, which counts about 1.3 billion members around the world. And one of the countries with the largest percentage of Catholics is Poland, where almost 88 % of Poles identify themselves as Roman Catholic. Religion in Poland is a very important topic, which is why it comes as no surprise that the fact that one of the most loved and known Popes in history was a Pole, John Paul II, or Karol Józef Wojtyła, as was his birth name.

    Born on May 18, 1920, as the youngest of three children, Karol began his childhood in the Polish town of Wadowice, 50 kilometers from Krakow. He was given his father’s name. His mother was a schoolteacher, but unfortunately died in childbirth when Karol was just eight years old. The baby she was giving birth to didn’t survive and neither did Karol’s older sister, who died few years before his birth. He and his older brother Edmund were the only ones to survive into adulthood, but his brother eventually died from scarlet fever, which left Karol crashed, as the two of them were very close, even though thirteen years apart. And although it was not unusual in those times to see children go due to different incurable diseases at the time, these events left a big mark on Karol’s heart and shaped his personality. As a result, he became very close to his father, who was an army sergeant. Finally, his father died too, suffering from a heart-attack, when Karol was about twenty two years old.

    Karol was an athletic young man, who often played soccer as a goalkeeper with other kids, who happened to be mostly Jewish. Just before the outbreak of the war, he moved to Krakow and enrolled in the prestigious Jagiellonian University, studying philology and discovering his talent for languages. It is interesting to know that he was able to speak as many as twelve of them, including Polish: Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, German, Ukrainian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovak and even Esperanto, and he used them whenever he could, especially during the visits to the languages’ native countries. This made him seen as being even closer to people. During his studies, he became active in theatrical arts, both as a writer and a performer. During the Nazi occupation, the university was closed and males were required to work instead, so Karol changed a few careers at that time, from being a messenger to a factory worker.

    In 1940, Karol suffered two injuries, the first after being hit by a tram, and the second after being hit by a lorry. The injuries left him permanently with one shoulder positioned higher than the other. In 1942, after his father’s death, he set up his mind on becoming a priest, and soon began secret courses in a clandestine underground seminary. In 1944, Karol escaped being taken away by the Nazis by hiding in his uncle’s basement. He then made this way to the Archbishop's Palace and stayed there until the Germans fled the city.

    The World War II came and went, leaving enormous destruction in Poland and shaping the history of the world and the country. Nothing was as it had been before. Karol volunteered to clean the ruined seminary, as well as help wherever help was needed. There are also many stories about how he helped Jewish people survive the hardships of the times, saving lives of some of them and also how he refused to baptise orphaned children belonging to the Jewish faith, because he thought it would be against their biological parents’ wishes. This shows well with how much respect he treated people of other faith.

    Karol became a priest officially on November 1, 1946 and then was sent to Rome’s Pontifical International Athenaeum Angelicum, or what will become the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas. He learned his licence one year later, and the next year, he passed his doctoral exam with the thesis The Doctrine of Faith in St. John of the Cross. At this university, Karol also studied Hebrew. In the summer, Karol returned to Poland, to become a priest of the village called Niegowić. When he arrived, he kneeled and kissed the ground, a custom he will use all through his papacy. The next year, he was sent to a parish in Krakow, and he began teaching ethics at the Jagiellonian University, as well as the Catholic University of Lublin, another polish city. During this time, a group of about twenty people gathered around him, calling themselves ‘’a little family’’, and they began helping people in need. With time, the group grew, as well as have their actions, including also sports and entertainment for everyone involved. As at that time, a priest was not allowed to travel with groups of people, they called him Uncle, to mask the fact that he was a priest at all. We remained known as Uncle to all his friends of the time even as his importance grew, as was his wish: Uncle will always remain Uncle. Also, all through his way from Karol to Pope John Paul II, Karol listened to his intuition, believing in prophecies and signs along his path, but all in a humble manner.

    In 1953, Karol earned a Doctorate in Sacred Theology, at the Jagiellonian University, but we couldn’t receive his degree for four years, as the Communist party decided to abolish the Faculty of Theology. As the communist regime took over Poland after the war, it became more and more difficult to practice any form of religious studies or actions.

    Karol then began writing articles for a Catholic newspaper called Tygodnik Powszechny, talking about current issues of the faith. He continued writing plays, poems and other literary work, often publishing it under pseudonyms Andrzej Jawień and Stanisław Andrzej Gruda. In 1960, he published an important work called ‘’Love and Responsibility’’, talking about the subject of marriage. 

    In 1958, Karol was appointed as the Auxiliary Bishop of Krakow. At his age, Karol became the youngest bishop in all of Poland. In 1959, he held first ever Midnight Mass on Christmas Day. Then, he took part in the Second Vatican Council, from 1962 to 1965, where he created the Decree of Religious Freedom and Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. He and his Polish colleagues also contributed to the Gaudium et spes.

    In 1967, Pope Paul VI promoted Karol to the Sacred College of Cardinals, where he was named Cardinal-Priest of San Cesareo in Palatio. That same year, Karol took part in the creation of the encyclical Humanae vitae. In 1973, he worked alongside Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, translating and creating different projects, like the book called Person and Act. The two of them remained close and often visited each other, and Karol was even invited to join her and her husband on a holiday in the United States, where he met his American colleagues that would later give him support in his election as a pope.

    In 1978, Pope Paul VI died. Pope John I was elected as his successor and Karol took part in his election. Unfortunately, Pope John I died only 33 days after becoming a pope, so another conclave was summoned. As there was a close tie between two other candidates, Karol was suggested as the best compromise. Karol won with 99 votes from the 111 electors, on the 16th October, 1978 and became the 264th pope. This made him become the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. As an homage to Pope John I, as well as Pope Paul VI, Karol took the name of John Paul II.

    John Paul II appeared on the balcony and addressed the gathered crown, which was not a custom of the time. From that moment on, he put all his efforts into making the world a better place, the only way he knew how, spreading the love of Jesus Christ and the Holy Father. He visited 129 countries during his pontificate, and as his popularity grew, so did the crowds of people who would gather to meet him during each visit. Some of his trips were the first ones ever to be made by a pope. He is also known to be the first Catholic pope to have visited and prayed in an Islamic mosque, in Syria, as well at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

    John Paul II also never forgot his origins. He made frequent trips to Poland, one such in 1980, where his appearance strengthened the Solidarity movement, which later helped break down the Communist regime in the country, as people now had someone, living on the other side of politics, to identify with and to feel supported by.

    An interesting fact from the biography of Pope John Paul II is that he had survived numerous assassination attempts. In 1981, he was shot and critically wounded, almost losing his life. Two years later, Pope visited his assassinator and forgave him in person. In 1982, a man tried to stab him, but was luckily stopped by security guards. Other attempts to take his life were made but were discovered in time to put a stop to them. This is why Pope John Paul II began using the popemobile whenever it was wise to do so, a specially designed vehicle that kept him safe while moving through large crowds, yet visible to those who gathered to great him. The first popemobile ever was used first by Pope Paul VI in 1965, but other designs of the vehicle followed, including those with bulletproof glass, and they were changed depending on the needs of their use at the given moment.

    Pope John Paul II took good care of his health, and was very keen on sports, all through his life. He was known for jogging in the Vatican gardens, and enjoyed numerous types of physical activities. In 2001, however, at about eighty years old, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In 2005, his health deteriorated, and he needed to be hospitalized on several occasions. As it was his wish to die in Vatican, he spent his final days in his own privacy, surrounded by medical professionals, instead of a hospital. As the news of his ill health spread around, people gathered in Vatican to pray for him. It is said that his last words were, spoken in Polish: Allow me to depart to the house of the Father. He passed away just over a month before his 85th birthday.

    The final decision of whether or not he was to be buried in Poland was left to The College of Cardinals, as per his will. He was buried beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. His funeral was the largest known in history gathering of heads of state, prime ministers and other important people of the time.

    During his life, Pope John Paul II wrote numerous texts and teachings, including 14 papal encyclicals (circular letters sent to all churches). He was criticised for standing strongly behind his and the church’s views against abortion and euthanasia, and even contraception. He believed that all human life, from the moments of conception, is sacred. According to that, he was also against capital punishment, always urging for mercy. He believed that all those things were a part of a struggle between a culture of life and a culture of death, as he put it. He was also not too fond of homosexualism, being against marriages of two people of the same sex and the idea of them being able to adopt a child together. He also refused to let go of mandatory celibacy of the Catholic priests.

    Although he did respect all religions and religious rights, he wanted the Constitution of the European Union to acknowledge the Christian heritage of Europe. With this, he had a full-on support from non-Catholic Christian representatives of other European countries.

    John Paul II also was quite accepting on the theory of evolution, a subject often controversial when put in a religious context. However, he did say that the human soul is what was immediately being created by God.

    Pope John Paul was also against of liberation theology, which is a mixture of Christian theology and Marxist socio-economic analyses, including the social concern for the poor and the political liberation for oppressed people. It was a popular standpoint of many leaders of Latin America, during the time of communist uprising in the middle of the 20th Century. Although it may sound good on paper, the practice left millions of people living in awful conditions all through the continent. He was also not afraid to openly and actively speak against organized crime and Mafia is Italy, visiting Sicily and urging for them to convert, as the judgment of God will one day surely arrive. His actions were not without consequences as in 1995, two historical churches in Rome were bombed by the Mafia. He is also thought to have had a crucial role in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, as well as elsewhere, as mentioned before. It is rumored that the Vatican Bank was the one to fund the movement of Solidarity in Poland  Also, it is said that the Polish Communist government had an action to discredit John Paul II, by spreading news of the fact that he had fathered an illegitimate child. The action was unsuccessful.

    Pope John II criticized not only the path his own home country was taking, but also described other regimes as dictatorships, calling Chile’s Augusto PInochet a dictator, asking its 31 Catholic bishops to campaign for free elections in the country. During his visit to the country, he made numerous gestures that showed his opinion on the state it was in, like hugging a victim of police brutality and meeting with the leaders of the opposition. His visit to Haiti showed the same focus on changing things in the country, when he said: "the opportunity to eat enough, to be cared for when ill, to find housing, to study, to overcome illiteracy, to find worthwhile and properly paid work; all that provides a truly human life for men and women, for young and old."

    His courage to speak was seen with awe, and it was even said that no country he has ever visited will remain the same after his departure, as he was on a strong mission of social catechism. Pope was against violence of all kinds, and spoke against the Persian Gulf War, and spoke for peace in the Middle East. He was the first world leader to speak of the massacre of Tutsis as a genocide.

    As a leader of one of the largest religious organizations, he was very respectful and understanding of those who practiced others. It is noted that during the World Day of Prayer for Peace, on 27th October in 1986 in Assisi, as many as 120 representatives of different religions and denominations spend the day together, all fasting and with prayer. He had good relations with the Church of England and Queen Elizabeth II, its Supreme Governor. He made it possible for former married Episcopal priests to become Catholic priests. He always tried to find the common grounds of religions and build on those facts and ideas, like with the animism. He visited 14th Dalai Lama eight times. He was always in contact with the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe. As mentioned before, he was the first Pope to enter and pray in a mosque. He improved the relationships between Catholicism and Judaism and made an official papal visit to a synagogue, and paid his respects in Auschwitz, a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. He even hosted a Papal Concert to Commemorate the Holocaust, that took place on 7th April 1994.

    Another fascinating gesture coming from the Pope was the fact that he made numerous apologies to all who had ever suffered from the hands of the Catholic Church, including Galileo Galilei, the violation of women’s rights and for the silence of many Catholics during the holocaust. In 2001, he sent his first email apologizing for the Catholic sex abuse cases, an always taboo topic which was largely talked about at the time due to the uncovering of many wrongdoings of the people belonging to the church.

    After his death, his successor, Pope Benedict XVI shortened the time usually required for a beatification and canonization, the process of marking someone as a saint, which takes about five years, saying: ‘’We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us.’’

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