Pope John Paul II is a person who is loved the world over. Throughout his 26-year tenure as the Santo Papa, his warm smiles, impressive presence, and charisma captured the hearts of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But despite his gentle demeanor, Pope John Paul II was a fighter. He spoke strongly against human rights violations and rallied nations to fight abuse, political oppression, and to stand up for freedom. And why wouldn’t he? He witnessed one of the darkest moments of the 20th century—World War II—firsthand at such a young age.
Born Karol Jósef Wojtyła in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920, the boy who grew up to be Pope John Paul II was the youngest of three children. His mother died of a heart attack and kidney failure when he was just 8 years old—even before he was able to take his First Communion—while his sister Olga died before he was born. This made the young Karol very close to his older brother, Edmund, whose career as a doctor sadly led to his death from scarlet fever.
Despite all these tragic losses, Karol had a happy and secure childhood. His father, a retired soldier and tailor who went by the nickname The Captain, taught him discipline and brought him up on God’s Word. Young Karol was also very athletic, and his days were marked with spirited football games. He often played with Jews living in their town—and he sometimes even joined the Jewish team as their goalkeeper. Through these interactions, he grew close to his Jewish countrymen, whom he said were very nationalistic about Poland.
A Budding Artist
In 1938, Karol and his father moved to Kraków, where he studied at the Jagiellonian University. Karol had always been an excellent student, and even graduated as the valedictorian of his secondary school. It was during his time at university that he explored his more artistic side, performing with various theatrical groups, working as a playwright, and learning a total of 12 languages. He experienced his first serious relationship with Ginka Beer, who has been described as a Jewish beauty, while they were in the same theater company.
Reign of Terror
Unfortunately, the university was shut down when the Nazis invaded Poland. To avoid deportation to Germany, Karol worked various jobs to elude detection as he clandestinely continued his studies. He was a messenger, a manual laborer at a quarry, and part of the staff in a chemical factory. When Karol was 20 years old, his father died. This was the period when he began to think about joining the priesthood.
During this time, all distinctive forms of Polish culture were suppressed and the church was persecuted. But Karol displayed courage when he decided to join the underground seminary of the Archbishop of Kraków. He also formed a small company of activists who kept Polish literature and drama alive. On August 6, 1944, the Gestapo raided houses in Kraków and gathered young men because of a recent uprising. Karol sought refuge in the basement of his uncle’s house while the German troops searched above. Scores of innocent men and boys were rounded up that day. Thankfully, Karol was able to escape and make his way to the Archbishop’s Palace. He was ordained on November 1, 1946.
When the Nazis left Poland, the country quickly fell under Communist rule and Fr. Karol faced harassment, criticism, and was in danger of severe persecution while doing his priestly work. When he became a bishop, he was under constant surveillance. Despite this, the future pope soldiered on and continued to speak up about banned issues including God, freedom, and human rights.
Voice of Human Rights
If there is one standout quote that can be attributed to Pope John Paul II, it is “Be not afraid”—words he said during his speech as the newly elected pope in 1978. With his conviction and audacity, Pope John Paul II exhibited the virtues of courage and justice. Throughout the 20th century, he became a beacon of hope and a persistent voice for human rights and dignity on the world stage. He often spoke out against human rights violations and Communism. On his first visit to Poland as the newly elected Pope, he told his audience “do not be afraid” and “do not approve.” Two calls that historians believed greatly helped in the toppling of Soviet rule in Poland.
A Loving Pope
But what was even more impressive was that Pope John Paul II’s heroic courage stemmed from love. In 1983, he sat with his would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca in his jail cell and willingly forgave the man who fired several bullets at him just a year and a half earlier.
This love was made stronger by Pope John Paul II’s humility—he never lorded his power over anyone, and led the Catholic Church with the heart of a servant. One custom attributed to him is his habit of respectfully kissing the ground upon arriving in a country for a visit. Throughout his ministry, he sought to imitate Christ’s example of leadership through service.
Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, and was mourned by billions of people. He was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI on May 1, 2011 then canonized by Pope Francis on April 27, 2014. His feast day falls on October 22.