SAINT JOHN PAUL II (1920-2005), pope – known as the “Pope of Divine Mercy”
Today, the Church honors Pope Saint John Paul II, a gifted servant of God who reminded us that only in Jesus Christ can we discover the purpose and fulfillment of human life, and that human existence itself is an invitation to communion with God and with one another.
Karol Józef Wojtyła was born in the Polish town of Wadowice, a small city 50 kilometers from Kraków, on May 18, 1920. He was the youngest of three children born to Karol Wojtyła and Emilia Kaczorowska. His mother died in 1929. His eldest brother Edmund, a doctor, died in 1932 and his father, a non-commissioned army officer, died in 1941. A sister, Olga, had died before he was born.
He was baptized on June 20, 1920 in the parish church of Wadowice, made his First Holy Communion at age nine and was confirmed at the age of eighteen. Upon graduating from high school in Wadowice, he enrolled in Kraków’s Jagiellonian University in 1938 and in a school studying drama.
The Nazi Occupation Forces closed the university in 1939 and young Karol had to work in a stone quarry from 1940 to 1944, and then in the Solvay chemical factory to earn his living and to avoid being deported to Germany.
In 1942, aware of his call to the priesthood, he began courses in the underground seminary of Kraków, run by Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha, archbishop of Kraków. At the same time, Karol Wojtyła was one of the pioneers of the “Rhapsodic Theatre”, also a clandestine enterprise that had to meet secretly due to the Nazi forces.
After the end of World War II, he continued his studies in the major seminary of Kraków, once it had re-opened, and studied theology at Jagiellonian University. He was ordained to the priesthood on November 1, 1946. Shortly afterwards, Father Wojtyła was sent to Rome where he finished his doctorate in theology in 1948 with a thesis on the subject of faith in the works of Saint John of the Cross. During his vacations, he exercised his pastoral ministry among the Polish immigrants of France, Belgium and Holland.
In 1948, he returned to Poland and was vicar of various parishes in Kraków as well as chaplain to the university students. This period lasted until 1951 when he again took up his studies in philosophy and theology. Later he became professor of moral theology and social ethics in the major seminary of Kraków and in the Faculty of Theology in Lublin, Poland.
On September 28, 1958, he was consecrated a bishop and was appointed titular bishop of Ombi and auxiliary bishop of Kraków by Venerable Pope Pius XII. In 1964, Bishop Wojtyła was appointed archbishop of Kraków by Pope St. Paul VI, who made him a cardinal on June 26, 1967.
Besides taking part in Vatican Council II (1962-1965) where he made an important contribution in drafting the Constitution “Gaudium et Spes [Joy and Hope]” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), Cardinal Wojtyła participated in all the assemblies of the Synod of Bishops.
After the death of Pope John Paul I, the cardinals elected Cardinal Wojtyła pope at the Conclave on October 16, 1978, and he took the name John Paul II. On Sunday, October 22nd, he solemnly inaugurated his pontificate as the 264th successor to the Apostle, Saint Peter. His pontificate, one of the longest in the history of the Church, lasted nearly 27 years, and he was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. In time, he made pastoral visits to 124 countries, including several with small Christian populations.
Pope John Paul II promoted ecumenical and interfaith initiatives, especially the 1986 Day of Prayer for World Peace in Assisi. He visited Rome’s main Synagogue and the Western Wall in Jerusalem; he also established diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel. He improved Catholic-Muslim relations and, in 2001, visited a mosque in Damascus, Syria.
His 1979 visit to Poland encouraged the growth of the Solidarity movement, and the collapse of communism in central and eastern Europe 10 years later. He began World Youth Day and traveled to several countries for those celebrations. In his almost 27 years of papal ministry, John Paul wrote 14 encyclicals, 15 Apostolic Exhortations, 11 Apostolic Constitutions, 45 Apostolic Letters and five books. He canonized 482 saints, including Saint Maria Faustina, the Apostle of Divine Mercy, and beatified 1,338 people.
And it was Pope John Paul II who officially established the Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday, responding to our Lord’s specific request to Saint Faustina, “I desire that the first Sunday after Easter be the Feast of Mercy” (Diary, 299).
In the last years of his life, he suffered from Parkinson’s disease and was forced to cut back on some of his activities. Pope John Paul II died on Saturday evening, April 2, 2005, the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday. From that evening until April 8th, the date of the funeral for the late pontiff, more than three million pilgrims came to Rome to pay homage to the mortal remains of our late Holy Father. Some of them stood in line for up to 24 hours to enter Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Pope John Paul II was beatified by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on May 1, 2011, Divine Mercy Sunday, and was canonized a saint by Pope Francis I on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 27, 2014. His mortal remains are interred in Saint Sebastian’s Chapel inside Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
We commemorate his feastday on October 22.
(From catholic.org/international, americancatholic.org, newadvent.org and vatican.va/news_services)
(The following prayer is from the Collect of the Roman Missal for Pope Saint John Paul II)
“O God, who are rich in mercy and who willed that Saint John Paul the Second should preside as Pope over Your universal Church, grant, we pray, that instructed by his teaching, we may open our hearts to the saving grace of Christ, the Sole Redeemer of mankind, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”