Sunday, April 03, 2005

Remembering Pope John Paul II

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Born: May 18, 1920
Elected Pope: October 16, 1978
Died: April 2, 2005

Karol Jozef Wojtyla was born on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, Poland. He experienced an overabundance of pain, tragedy and loneliness in his childhood and throughout his life. His mother died when Karol was only eight. His older brother, who shared his passion for theatre and soccer, died of scarlet fever when Karol was 12. After graduating from secondary school in 1938, he and his father moved to Krakow where he enrolled at Jagiellonian University to study literature and philosophy.

Wojtyla turned to the Polish Church by joining a secret, underground seminary in 1944. He was ordained in 1946 in Krakow, and spent much of the next few years studying - he earned two masters degrees and a doctorate - before taking up priestly duties as an assistant pastor in Krakow in 1949.

In 1968, Cardinal Wojtyla made an extremely unusual personal gesture by visiting the synagogue in the Jewish District of Krakow. For him, the visit was a gesture made in reference to the wave of anti-Semitism in 1968. For us, it was a rehearsal for his historic visit to the Roman synagogue in 1986. Indeed, Wojtyla became the first pope to visit a synagogue and the first to visit the memorial at Auschwitz to victims of the Holocaust. In ending the Catholic-Jewish estrangement, he called Jews "our elder brothers."

On October 16, 1978, after the one-month reign of Pope John Paul I, the cardinals of the Church stunned the world by electing the first non-Italian to the papacy in over 400 years. Karol Wojyla, the cardinal archbishop of Kraków, took the name John Paul II and began his ministry as universal Pastor of the Church.

Not only is he the most traveled pope in history, having made over 102 apostolic visits to 129 countries in the past 25 years; he spoke eight languages (learning Spanish after he became pope). He was also a proponent for innovation, using the media and technology to his advantage. In the course of his pontificate, he canonized 476 individuals and beatified another 1,330 including Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

In the course of his service to the Church, Pope John Paul II promulgated 14 Encyclicals along with numerous letters, messages and speeches. In 1985 he charted a new direction for the tradition of celebrating the Way of the Cross on Good Friday at the Coliseum. Each year he invited renowned authors or religious leaders to prepare the meditations for each station.

Not content with tending merely to Church affairs, John Paul has made the world's business his business - especially human rights and the needs of the poor. His support for the Solidarity movement in Poland was a key to the downfall of communism in Poland. During his visits to the United States, he warned about the dangers of materialism, selfishness and secularism, and suggested lowering the standard of living and sharing the wealth with the Third World. He believed that only prayer and faith could make a person happy and he demonstrated this by example. Indeed, he was so often in prayer, that it was said he made his decisions "on his knees."

The third longest serving pope in history, the length of the John Paul II’s pontificate was exceeded only by Pius IX in the 19th century and the Apostle Peter himself. John Paul II was not a pope who cared about public opinion polls; he said what he thought was right and wrong from conviction. He was an admirable man of integrity and prayer.

After bearing witness to Christ in his papacy and through his own suffering in the later days of his life, Pope John Paul II laid down the burden of his office on April 2, 2005. May God count him among the flock of the blessed in the eternal kingdom!

- courtesy of Liturgical Publications