St. John Paul II
As Pope, John Paul II wrote these words: “among creatures no one knows Christ better than Mary; no one can introduce us to a profound knowledge of his mystery better than his Mother,” (Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae). This was not just something John Paul had learned, but something he had lived in his own experience as a young person. There was a secret to his faith and love for Jesus Christ, and that secret was Mary. His own devotion to her took hold after reading St. Louis de Montfort’s True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Later on he said: “Reading this book was to be a turning point in my life.” It cleared away any doubts that devotion to the Blessed Virgin could eclipse due worship given to Jesus. He took as his motto (both as a bishop and later as pope). De Montfort’s short form of consecration: Totus tuus. Totally yours.
Pope John Paul II was born on May 18, 1920 in the Polish town of Wadowice,which lies about 50 kilometers from Krakow. His parents, Karol and Emilia, gave him the name Karol Jozef Wojtyla. He was the youngest of three children though his sister, Olga, had died before he was born.
Death and sorrow were familiar to Karol from a young age. When he was only 9 years old his mother died. A few years later when he was 12 his older brother Edmund died. Karol’s father was a man of deep faith and helped his young son to endure these sorrows with trust in God and in his eternal promises.
As an adolescent Karol excelled in school, receiving the highest grades in all his classes. It was evident to his teachers that he was intellectually gifted and capable of great achievements. At the same time he was active and athletic and loved to spend time swimming, skiing, hiking and canoeing. Being outdoors in the middle of creation brought him into contact with God in a simple and profound way. He was also interested in theater, literature, and poetry. All this time, his life of faith and his dedication to the Blessed Virgin grew. In secondary school he joined the Society of Mary and later on served as president for the group. He also made his first pilgrimage to Czestochowa which left a deep impression on him.
In 1938, Karol was 18 years old and finished with school. He and his father moved to Krakow where he enrolled in Jagellonian University in the School of Philosophy. At the same time he began studying drama with a theatre group called “Studio 38.” He also made time for apostolic action, taking part in the university’s Student Society in the sector dedicated to the Eucharist and works of charity.
World War II broke out in 1939 causing great social and cultural upheaval. The Nazis invaded Poland and seized all the means of communication, education and culture. Their goal was to crush Polish culture so they could more easily control the people. All forms of art and culture were suppressed and universities, including the Jagellonian, were closed. Many of the professors and clerics were imprisoned and the young students were sent to work in factories or plants. Karol began working as a stone cutter at a quarry in Zakrozowek, just outside of Krakow. During this time Karol became friends with Jan Tyranowski, a tailor by trade and a man of great spiritual. Jan, school in the Carmelite spirituality, introduced him to the writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross which laid the foundation for his own spirituality.
Karol had a strong sense of patriotism and love for his country. He suffered greatly when he saw the injustice and suffering his people endured. Things he passionately believed in were under attack: the faith, education, art and culture. Some of his friends joined the resistance movement in Poland, resorting to sporadic violence against the occupying resistance movement in Poland, resorting to sporadic violence against the occupying German troops. Karol, however, saw another way. He would resist oppression by fortifying his country from within, from underneath the radar of the enemy. At this time he joined the Rhapsodic Theater, a clandestine theater company that wrote dramas and performed in the houses of friends and neighbors. It was dangerous to meet and perform; if the group was discovered they could easily be arrested and imprisoned for illegal activity.
In 1941, Karol’s father died. At 21 years of age he found himself alone in the world. Thoughts of the priesthood had been on his mind for a while and the time seemed right to pursue it. In 1942, he was transferred to the Solvay chemical plant. Providentially, this allowed him to begin secret studies for the priesthood at Krakow’s underground seminary. In 1944, Archbishop Sapieha transferred the seminarians, including Karol, to the Archbishop’s residence in Krakow. Here he remained until the end of the war.
In 1945 the Russian army freed Krakow from Nazi occupation, and Karol was able to continue his theology studies at the Jagellonian University that year. On November 1, 1946 he was ordained to the priesthood. He was 26 years old. Soon after, he left for Rome to study at the Angelicum University. In 1948, he received his doctorate in philosophy after defending his dissertation: “The Problem of Faith in the Works of St. John of the Cross.” The same year, he completed his doctorate in Sacred Theology from Jagellonian University.
In 1949, Fr. Karol was assigned to St. Florian’s parish in Krakow as assistant pastor. He spent several fruitful years ministering to the people. He was also chaplain to the university students and connected with the young people and their concerns. He spent time with the youth on retreats, hiking and canoeing outings, and in long conversations about their lives, their faith and their future. At the same time he began publishing articles, papers and books, and studied for the exams necessary to become a university professor.
In 1958, he was appointed auxiliary bishop to Archbishop Baziak ofKrakow. This request from the Holy Father was a weighty matter. Becoming a bishop meant he would have to give up some of the nearness he had to the people and youth he worked with in parishes and universities. It meant a definite and unexpected change in his priestly mission. That evening, after he had gotten the call, Fr. Karol knocked and the door of a Carmelite convent and asked the Sisters if he could spend some time in prayer there. Since it was already late they prepared a guest room for him to spend the night. He entered the chapel and laid prostrate before the Tabernacle. The next morning, a Sister of the community discovered him still there, still in the same position where he had spent the entire night in prayer.
His Episcopal ordination took place on September 28, 1958 in Wavel Cathedral. He received this great responsibility with obedience, remembering the “fiat” of Mary who accepted God’s plan though it seemed far beyond her abilities. He took as his Episcopal motto the following words: Totus tuus ergo sum Maria. “I am totally yours, Mary.” For short: Totus tuus. He dedicated himself and all his work to her hands, knowing that in this way it would be a more pleasing offering to Jesus. Despite the difficulties he believed God had plans and works for him that he could not yet know.
This proved true. Between 1962 and 1965, Bisho Wojtyla took part in the Second Vatican Council. He played an important role and once the Council had ended Paul VI made Archbishop Wojtyla a cardinal in gratitude for his service and the important role he played in Vatican II.
Over the next nine years (1967-1978), Cardinal Wojtyla exercised his Episcopal ministry with the same energy and creativity that he had always offered to God. He spared no effort to educate the faithful and implement the teachings of Vatican II in his diocese. He made pastoral visits to numerous European nations and continued to write and publish works of philosophy and theology.
The year 1978 proved to be full of more unexpected events. In August, Cardinal Wojtyla received word that Pope Paul VI had passed on to eternal life. He traveled to Rome on August 11 for the funeral and stayed for the Conclave to elect the next pope. On August 26, the Cardinals elected Albino Luciani who chose the name John Paul I. He reigned for thirty-three days. In early October, Cardinal Wojtyla received another call to Rome once again for the funeral of John Paul I and a conclave to elect the new pope. The conclave began on October 14 and by October 16 the cardinals had elected Cardinal Wojtyla as the 262rd successor of Peter. With firm confidence in Mary he accepted and took the name John Paul II, to show his intention to continue the work of Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, namely the implementation of Vatican II.
When he was asked why he had chosen the motto “Totus Tuus” he answered:
“the reading of the book True Devotion (by St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort) was a turning point in my life. I saw ‘turning point,’ but in fact it was a long inner journey (…) This ‘perfect devotion’ is indispensable to anyone who means to give himself without reserve to Christ and to the work of redemption.” It’s from Montfort that I have taken my motto ‘Totus Tuus’ (‘I am all thine’). Someday I’ll have to tell you Montfortians how I discovered Montfort’s Treatise on True Devotion to Mary, and how often I had to reread it to understand it.”
-Treatise on True Devotion to Mary, Introduction
When the Holy Father traveled to Jasna Gora in 1979 he prayed to Mary in these words, shedding light on his pontificate which was to be part of his journey with Mary:
“Our Lady of the Bright Mountain, Mother of the Church! Once more I consecrate myself to you ‘in your maternal slavery of love.’ Totus Tuus! I am all yours! I consecrate to you the whole Church, everywhere and to the ends of the earth! I consecrate to you humanity; I consecrate to you all men and women, my brothers and sisters, all the people and the nations. I consecrate to you Europe and all the continents. I consecrate to you Rome and Poland, united through your servant, by a fresh bond of love. Mother, accept us! Mother, do not abandon us! Mother, be our guide!”
-John Paul II books of Mary (Margaret R. Bunson) Homily in Jasna Gora, June 6, 1979
He was full of zeal to bring others to consecrate themselves to Mary. For example, he wrote to all the bishops of the Church:
“All of us, therefore, who receive the same power through priestly ordination, have in a certain sense a prior right to see her (Mary) as our Mother. And so I desire that all of you, together with me, should find in Mary, the Mother of the priesthood which we have received from Christ. I also desire that you should entrust your priesthood to her in a special way. Allow me to do it myself, entrusting to the Mother of Christ each one of you, without any exception, in a solemn and, at the same time, simple and humble way. And I ask each of you, dear brothers, to do it yourselves in the way dictated to you in your heart, especially by your love for Christ the Priest, and also by your own weaknesses, which go hand in hand with your desire for service and holiness. I ask you to do this.”
- John Paul II book of Mary (Margaret R. Bunson) Letter to Bishops of the Church, 11
The pontificate of John Paul II was one of the longest and most fruitful in the history of the Church. It lasted nearly 27 years and was marked by extraordinary holiness and zeal. John Paul II took on the papacy as a true missionary endeavor. As always , his greatest concern was for people and his desire was to reach out to them and be with them. As he said at the beginning of his pontificate: “I hope to have communion with the people. That is the most important thing.” He made pastoral trips to over 100 countries around the world and 146 pastoral visits within Italy. In return, millions upon millions of people flocked to Rome to visit the Holy Father. More than 17.6 million pilgrims attended his general audiences held on Wednesdays throughout his pontificate. In the Jubilee year alone 8 million pilgrims met him in Rome.
John Paul II used his position to advocate for human rights around the globe and defend the freedom and integrity of all people. He met with heads of state to offer counsel and warnings, pleading for true justice towards people. This courage and audacity in the face of evil and injustice was a threat for some. A few short years after his election on May 13, 1981, an attempt was made on John Paul’s life. A hired assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, shot the Pope twice as he was riding in an open car through St. Peter’s Square. Inexplicably, the bullets passed through his chest and abdomen missing all vital organs. John Paul II attributed the miracle to Mary , May 13 being the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. From his hospital bed he pronounced the words of forgiveness towards his attacker. Later on he was able to visit Ali Agca in prision to forgive him in person. The meeting was personal and private; no one knows exactly what was said.
In 1982 he traveled to Fatima to thank Our Lady for the miracle. He prayed with these words:
“At this hour, here at the shrine of Fatima, I wish to repeat now, before you all, Totus Tuus. All yours, O Mother! I ask you to offer me and all these brethren up to the ‘Father of Mercies’ in homage and gratitude, hiding and covering our poverty with your merits and those of your Divine son. And may we be accepted, blessed, and strengthened in our good resolves, which we wish to bind up, like a bunch of flowers,, with a ribbon ‘woven and gilded’ for you, O Mother. ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Give us your blessing, Lady, our most beloved Mother!” (Book of Mary Margaret R. Bunson Insegnamenti May 12, 1982)
John Paul II continued to have a special love and concern for young people which led him to establish World Youth Day. Millions of young people attended the 19 World Youth Days celebrated during his pontificate.
He desired to reach out to all people not just Catholics. He entered into dialogue with the Jews and representatives of other religions and ecclesial communities.
In the midst of his active pontificate John Paul never ceased to be a scholar and teacher. He wrote 14 Encyclicals, 15 Apostolic Exhortations, 11 Apostolic Constitutions, and 45 Apostolic Letters. As a private doctor he also published five books of his own.
Beneath all of his missionary – his writings, his public appearances and numerous meetings – the Holy Father maintained a profound life of prayer and contemplation. His confident surrender into the hands of Mary gave him strength to proclaim Christ throughout the world. He once wrote: “The rosary is my favorite prayer, marvelous in its simplicity and its depth.” He found in the rosary a true means of contemplating the mysteries of Christ.
During the last years of his life John Paul II began to suffer decline in his health. Being a globally public figure his sufferings were not endured in solitude but constantly scrutinized and commented upon by the media. As the illness wore on many of his natural gifts were depleted. His strong, healthy body became more and more immobile. His expressive face and hands, trained both as an actor and a pastor, could no longer communicate with ease. His powerful and charismatic voice was reduced to slow and slurred speech. This was perhaps, his greatest witness yet: to continue to appear before leaders and crowds, cameras, and reporters, testifying to the value of human suffering. Those closet to him urged him to rest but as long as he had one drop of strength left he would spend it for the Church. He lived his personal “via crucis” like Jesus, accompanied and consoled by the presence of Mary.
On April 2, 2005 at 9:37 pm while Saturday was drawing to a close on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday John Paul II departed this world for the house of the Father. Crowds of pilgrims who had filled St. Peter’s Square for days stood beneath his window singing, praying, and holding lighted candles.
From that evening until the funeral on April 8 more than three millions pilgrims came to Rome to pay homage to the mortal remains of John Paul II. Some of them waited in line for up to 24 hours to enter St. Peter’s Basillica.
On April 28, the Holy Father Benedict XVI announced that the normal five-year waiting period before beginning the cause of beatification and canonization would be waived for John Paul II.
The cause was officially opened on June 28, 2005 and on December 19, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI signed a decree recognizing Pope John Paul II’s life of ‘heroic virtue.’ with his signature, Benedict XVI threw the door wide open to the beatification of the much-loved Polish Pontiff and gives him the title ‘Venerable.”
On the 27th of April 2014, Pope John Paul the great was officially declared a saint in the Catholic church!