Thursday, May 18, 2006

John Paul II


Born on this day in Wadowice in 1920, barely a year after Poland achieved its independence, Karol Wojtyla was the son of an intensely religious retired officer of the Polish Army. Karol's mother died when he was 10, but his native self-confidence propelled him as he became an outstanding student and athlete (a soccer goalie and an outdoorsman) with an interest in drama (both writing and acting). He entered Jagiellonian University in 1938, but after the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, he worked as a stonecutter and a chemical plant worker during the day while by night writing for and acting in underground theater groups such as the Rhapsodic Theater of Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk.

The Rhapsodic Theater was wholly unlike Ernst Lubitsch's comic conception of a Polish underground theater group led by Jack Benny in To Be or Not to Be (1942); its defiance was not about spy-capers and fake beards, but about propping up the beleaguered patriotic spirit of the Poles through the clandestine performance of Polish-language works in violation of Nazi prohibitions. For Wojtyla, the defiance of the Rhapsodic Theater was inextricably linked with the hope provided by the teachings of the Roman Catholic church, a point of view he inherited from his father, who hoped he would study for the priesthood.

Following his father's death in 1941, it was with a measure of both patriotism and piety that Wojtyla eluded the Nazi standing order for the arrest of all young Polish men in Krakow and resumed his religious instruction in the underground seminary of Cardinal Adam Sapieha, the archbishop of Krakow.

After the end of World War II he resumed his studies openly, earning his degree in theology from Jagiellonian in 1946 while continuing to pursue his literary activities. In March 1946 he published his first collection of poems, Song of the Hidden God; and 8 months later he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. Sapieha sent Wojtyla to Rome to earn his doctorate, which he did in 1948 with a dissertation on faith according to St. John of the Cross. After serving as a parish priest in Krakow, he returned to Jagiellonian to study philosophy (particularly the ethical writings of Max Scheler), and he accepted an appointment as a professor of ethics at Lublin, where he gained a reputation as one of Poland's chief ethicists.

In 1958, Pius XII named Wojtyla bishop of Ombi. Shortly thereafter, he published his first major ethics work, a treatise on sexuality called Love and Responsibility (1960), which Paul VI would later rely upon heavily in writing his encyclical Humanae vitae (1968); in it, Wojtyla portrays sex as a mystery encompassing both body and soul, which is why he believes it is wrong to separate the bonding that comes through healthy sex from the act of procreation; artificial contraception, in Wojtyla's view, limits one's ability to give fully of one's self and creates distance between a husband and wife by denying part of the mystery. (As pope, he would reaffirm his support for Paul's Humanae vitae in Chicago in 1980, a source of concern particularly for progressive American and Western European Catholics who believed that the Church was out of touch with modern issues of sexuality such as abortion, homosexuality and birth control).

Wojtyla participated in Vatican Council II (1962-5, called by John XXIII), not only having a major influence on the Church's statements on its role in the Modern World and the doctrine of religious freedom, but showing himself to be a consummate networker, gaining world renown within the Church. In 1963, Paul VI named him archbishop of Krakow, and created him a cardinal in 1967.

During the 1970s, Wojtyla became a major voice in Poland against the Communist regime, working to secure greater tolerance for the activities of the Church. After the deaths of Paul VI and his successor, John Paul I, within scarcely a few months, the widely admired Wojtyla, at the relatively young age of 58, was elected pope on October 16, 1978 -- the first non-Italian pope to be elected since Adrian VI (Dutch, elected 1522). He took the names of his three predecessors, evidencing his will to carry out the aims of Vatican II.

The following year, he exhibited both his personal charisma and the influence of his pulpit by visiting his Polish homeland and meeting with the leader of the Solidarity anti-Communist movement, Lech Walesa; it is said that by his visit, John Paul II gave the Polish people the confidence to fight for freedom, and was the catalyst at the beginning of the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and in Russia during the 1990s. It was an impressive debut performance in this service of John Paul II's ideas about the role the Church should play in a world increasingly violent world: the pope would make almost 200 official visits throughout the world, more than all his predecessors combined, in an effort to leave behind his personal imprint of love and peace.

His trips were all exceptionally well-staged and media-savvy, beginning with his ritual of kissing the ground of the foreign land he was visiting, followed by open-air masses attracting hundreds of thousands of listeners, and the delivery of homilies which gently drew upon local topical concerns. His instincts as an old actor were sharp; during a gathering in New York's Central Park in 1995, the aging pope paused during the delivery of a homily to sing a few bars from one of his favorite Polish Christmas carols, to the roaring approval of the crowd. "And to think," the Pope quipped, with comic timing worthy of the aforementioned Jack Benny himself as observed by one commentator, "you don't even know Polish."

Although he was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt in 1981 and some time later began to show the effects of Parkinson's Disease, John Paul II refused to simply take it easy, and in addition to his travels found new ways of reaching the public, publishing a bestselling book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994) and releasing a hit CD of spoken words and chanted prayers accompanied by classical and contemporary music, Abba Pater (1999).

After his death on April 2, 2005, 4 million people from around the world converged upon Rome for his funeral, chanting "Santo subito!" ("Saint soon!"), as commentators observed that he was the one human being who had been seen in person by the largest number of other humans in the entire history of the planet.

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