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John Paul II: The path to sainthood

01 April, 2012


An account of the life of Pope John Paul II, his youth and early years in Krakow, how he arranged his daily life, his way of dealing with the Curia and his trips all round the world, his visitation of the parishes of Rome, his ecumenism and his relation with the Jews and other world religions. It also has chapters on his relations with young people, his devotion to Mary and his own personal suffering toward the end of his life. Finally, there is a chapter on the beatification just five years after he died.

Fr Michael Collins is a priest of Dublin archdiocese who studied and taught archaeology in Rome for many years and worked as a guide in St Peter’s Basilica. At present he works as a curate in Blackrock parish in Dublin suburbs.




  1. Who was Karol Wojtyla?
  2. Daily Life with John Paul
  3. The Pope Governs the Curia
  4. John Paul, Parish Priest of the World
  5. John Paul and Ecumenism
  6. John Paul and the Jews
  7. John Paul and Religions of the World
  8. John Paul and Young People
  9. John Paul and Mary
  10. John Paul’s Social Teaching
  11. John Paul and Suffering
  12. The Beatification of Pope John Paul II

Homily of Pope Benedict XVI at the Beatification Mass 1st May 2011

Appendix I Letter of Resignation
Appendix II Excerpts from the Pope’s Last Will and Testament

pp. 119. The Columba Press. To purchase this book online go to www.columba.ie 



Karol Josef Wojtlya was born in the small town of Wadovice, some 50 kilometers from Krakow on 18 May, 1920. The town had about 10,000 inhabitants. He was the youngest of three children born to Karol Wotjyla, an army officer and Emilia Kaczorowska, a seamstress whose family originated in Lithuania.

The family circumstances were modest. Olga, the first of the children, had died in infancy, and Edmund, Karol’s brother was 14 years his senior. The young boy was attached to his brother but Karol was forced to say farewell when Edmund decided to train as a doctor and left home to study medicine in Krakow.

Karol was sociable and enjoyed sports, especially football which he played in the local school grounds. Emilia was delicate and suffered with heart and lung problems for some years. These gradually grew more serious and when Karol was just 8 years of age, she died, at the age of 45. The loss of his mother made an enormous impact on him, and he continued to refer to her fondly throughout his life. Two years later Edmund graduated as a doctor and came to work at Bielsko-Biala hospital, closer to Wadowice. Karol was able to see nis brother on regular visits home. The two brothers grew much closer, united around their widowed father.

In November 1932, when Karol was just 12, another bitter tragedy occurred. Edmund became ill with scarlet fever, contracted in the hospital where he worked. Within a few days, on 4 December, he died in hospital. Speaking years later to his friend Andre Frossard, John Paul confided how grievously he felt the bereavement.

“My mother’s death made a deep impression on me. My brother’s perhaps a still deeper one because of the dramatic circumstances in which it occurred and because I was more mature. Thus quite soon I became a motherless only child”.

Karol senior tried his best to look after his remaining child. While the days were filled with school lessons, serving Mass, playing football, the evenings were passed at home with his father. Often the two made a pilgrimage to a shrine at Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. The sanctuary, dedicated to the Passion of Christ, was established in 1600 and consists of 42 chapels. Here Passion plays were performed in Holy Week. At home, father and son recited the Rosary and prayers together, and, before bed, Karol senior told patriotic stories of Poland’s tortured past.

At the age of 18, Karol graduated from Wadowice School and decided to enrol at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. His studies were in Polish literature and history. Leaving their rented apartment in Church Street, the two Wojtylas travelled to Krakow in order for Karol to be near the university. They took up lodgings in the basement flat at 10, Tyniecka Street, a house owned by Emelia’s brother, Robert Kaczorowski.

By now Karol senior was 6o, and had retired on a small military pension. While the young Karol enthusiastically embraced
into a circle of amateur actors, Studio 39, who performed largely patriotic plays and recitals of poetry. He later joined the Rhapsodic Theatre, an underground theatrical movement, which allowed him foster his love of acting.

At the beginning of his second year at university, life was to change dramatically once more for Karol. On 1 September, Germany invaded Poland. The Second World War had begun and for the next six years, the country was to be engulfed in one of the most horrific wars in human history.

Along with hundreds of citizens of Krakow, both father and son left the city at the beginning of the hostilities. When they reached the River San, some 120 miles east of Krakow, they learned that Russia had invaded Poland. Faced with the onslaught from Russia, the two returned to Krakow. The Nazi troops were deemed less hostile than the fierce Russians.

With the university closed, Karol was forced to work in a quarry. A work permit was required by the authorities. Lack of such a permit could result in deportation to a concentration camp. The young man began work on ii October 194o. Each day Karol travelled outside the city to the quarry at Zakrz6wek, where he was detailed to the explosives unit. The work at the quarry and later at a chemical plant allowed him the necessary permit to avoid deportation. On a return trip home as Pope, he met his former colleagues, and recalled the kindness of the supervisor, who allowed him read his university books.

In late 1941, Karol’s father became ill. Forced to remain in bed, his health continued to deteriorate. Karol divided his time between lectures and caring for his father. Returning home one afternoon in mid February 1942, Karol discovered that his father had collapsed and died in his bedroom, apparently from a heart attack. At the age of 20, Karol was now entirely alone. Having called the priest, he spent the whole night praying beside his father.

For six months he went to stay with the family of his friend Juliusz Kydrynski and he was transferred to the Solvay chemical plant. The loss of his father had forced him to re-evaluate his life. The war had disrupted his studies, and once more he determined a change of course. He decided to become a priest. Influenced by Jan Leopold Tyranowski, who ran the Living Rosary Group in St. Stanislaw Kosta Parish, Karol was torn between joining the Carmelites or the diocese of Krakow. He enrolled in the Sodality of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and received the brown scapular.

Having taken advice from the local curate in his parish, Karol finally decided to become a priest in Krakow diocese. He went to visit Cardinal Adam Sapieha, who recalled how the young Karol had given a welcome address many years earlier when the cardinal had visited his school. The cardinal was impressed by the serious young man, but explained clearly the danger which his training would involve. The Nazis had closed the seminary, so classes were held clandestinely. Karol attended lectures when his shift work allowed. Seminary training also meant that he had to leave the Rhapsodic Theatre, much to the disappointment of his fellow actors.

On 29 February, while walking home from the factory, Karol was hit by a German truck. Left unconscious for some hours, he was transferred to hospital where he remained for twelve days. When in August the Nazis held searches in the neighbourhood for seminarians, the archbishop decided it was safer for them to live in the episcopal residence. Karol joined the other nine seminarians and concluded his studies under the tutelage of the archbishop, whom he came to know and respect. On 18 January 1945, the Russian Army ousted the Nazis from Krakow, but the sufferings of the city were not yet over.

A year after the war ended, Karol was ordained by Cardinal Sapieha in the private chapel of the palace on 1 November 1946. He was the first of his class to be ordained. The next day, the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, Fr Wojtyla celebrated his first Mass in the crypt of the medieval Wawel Cathedral, in the heart of Krakow. A fortnight later, on 15 November, he boarded a train bound for Rome. The cardinal had decided that the newly ordained priest was capable of further studies and sent him to study at the Dominican university of the Angelicum.

The exposure to Rome gave the young Fr Wojtlya an invaluable lesson in the universality of the Church. While lodging in the Belgian College, he learned French and his daily contacts allowed him learn Italian. He immediately took to the city, spending his free time visiting the churches and, in particular, the catacombs. He also assisted in parish work when his studies permitted. During his summer vacations, he travelled throughout France, improving his knowledge of French while learning about developments in the post-war Church.

Over the next two years, he worked on a thesis on St John of the Cross, graduating with highest marks. On 15 June 1948, the day after he received his doctorate, the young priest returned to Poland, where he was appointed as curate to the village of Niegowici. The Poland to which he returned was markedly different from that which he had left. Communists were in power, and relations between Church and State had soured. The young priest enjoyed his first parish, remarking to a friend that the farmers whom he met were wiser than the Greek philosophers. Years later, villagers remembered the earnest young priest who walked around the district in a black soutane and biretta, stopping to exchange a few words with everybody he met. He was conscientious and in particular-spent a long time with penitents who came to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance.

It was during this time that he began to write for a Catholic newspaper based in Krakow, Tygodnik Powszechny. His first article was on his observations of the Church in France which he had visited during his study leave. For years he would remain a faithful associate journalist, publishing poetry and essays on religious and ethical topics.

The experience in the rural parish was short-lived, and less than a year later he was transferred to the urban setting of St Florian’s Parish in Krakow. The university was nearby and many students and academics frequented the church. The young Fr Karol made friends easily and became very popular. He was in great demand for marriages and baptisms, and ran regular retreats for engaged couples. It was unusual to have such a highly qualified curate, but he made his mark felt with those who frequented the university.
demic young priest should do another doctorate, this time in philosophy. Although he continued to reside in a parochial house, he undertook a two- year doctorate on the German philosopher Max Scheler. Contemporaries recalled the young Fr Wojtyla as quiet and reserved, but passionate once he was engaged in debate.

Relations between the Church and the Communist government continued to deteriorate. In late 1952, police arrested Monsignor Eugeniusz Baziak, the Archbishop of Krakow, and a year later, the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Wyszynski of Warsaw was imprisoned for thirty-five months. When President Wladyslaw Gomulka was elected President of Poland in 1953, Cardinal Wyszynski was released, to the delight of the Catholics and the resentment of the Communists.

Plans for Fr Wojtyla to teach on the Theology Faculty at the Jagellonian University in Krakow were abandoned when the faculty was abolished in 1953. But a university post awaited him. In 1954, he began to lecture on Social Ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin University and was appointed to the Chair of Ethics two years later.

While he continued his chaplaincy work in Krakow, the young professor travelled every fortnight to Lublin where he gave lectures. In order to save time, he took the overnight train, arriving in Lublin with barely enough time to fulfill the obligations of his lecture timetable. However, Professor Wojtyla was very popular with his students, many of whom would accompany him back to the train station for his return to Krakow.

On 4 July 1958, while on a canoeing holiday in the mountains, Karol Wojtyla received a telephone call to visit Cardinal Wyszynski in Warsaw. An auxiliary had died, and Pope Pius XII had appointed the young academic as the new auxiliary of Krakow. It was one of Pope Pius’ last appointments, as he died in October of that year.

When Wojtyla protested to the archbishop that thirty-eight was too young to be consecrated a bishop, the prelate dryly
marked that God would soon relieve him of that impediment.

Accepting the appointment, the new auxiliary surprised the archbishop by asking for permission to return to his vacation with his students and friends in the mountains. He had been preparing a book on sexual ethics, and he had distributed several chapters to his companions. The Primate, who did not know the bishop elect, gave permission to the unusual request, urging him to be back in time for his consecration. He had not yet learned the young cleric’s unpunctuality. Fr Wojtyla went to the nearby convent of Ursuline nuns. Knocking on the door, he asked if he could pray in the chapel. He remained for such a long time in prayer that a sister came to see if he was well. She was surprised to find him prostrate on the floor before the tabernacle. It was a mode of prayer he continued to use into old age.

The date was set for his episcopal consecration. On 28 September, Karol Wojtyla was consecrated at Wawel Cathedral and immediately took up his new duties. He was the youngest bishop in Poland.

Bishop Wojtyla was plunged into the world of Polish politics. Hitherto he had shown no interest in the Communist regime. Now, as pastor, he had to deal with the authorities who actively interfered with the life of the Church.

One of his first encounters with the antagonistic atheistic Communist authorities concerned the industrial town of Nowa Huta. Built in the suburbs of Krakow, the city planners refused permission to build a church. Each year, usually on Christmas Eve, Bishop Wojtyla celebrated Mass in the open air. It was an effective move, subtly putting the authorities under pressure and making their refusal look ridiculous in public opinion. Finally, in 1967, they relented and permission was granted to build the parish church. For over a decade, workers and students came from all over Poland to offer their services for free. The church was dedicated by cardinal Wojtyla the year before his election to the papacy. A stone from St Peter’s tomb, sent by Pope Paul VI, was placed in the church.

Bishop Wojtyla retained his academic interest, lecturing to students and in 1960 publishing his first book, Love and Responsibility. He also began to cooperate with Cardinal Wyszynski’s great novena, a nine year period of preparation for the millennium of Polish Christianity celebrated in 1966.

When Archbishop Baziak died in July 1962, the auxiliary was elected as a stopgap administrator. Pope John XXIII had convoked the Second Vatican Council which was due to open on 11 October that same year. Bishop Wojtyla had submitted a paper to the Preparatory Commission in 1959 outlining the need for a new presentation of Christian humanism. In particular, he urged a review of the way in which lay people were seen as a passive force. Bishop Wojtyla departed for Rome on 5 October and participated in the first sessions, held between October and December.

The visit to Rome enkindled old memories of his student days, but importantly introduced him to many of the world’s leading theologians. He found the sessions themselves somewhat boring, but he enjoyed the informal gatherings and also broadened his knowledge of the universal Church. Seated far away from the High Altar, close to the main door, Bishop Wojtlya spent the tedious sessions composing poetry and preparing the outline of a book. Returning to Krakow, he wrote many articles about the Council and initiated a series of visits to the parishes of the diocese. In particular, he tried to interest the priests in the changes which were about to sweep the Church.

On 3 June 1963, Pope John XXIII died at the Vatican. For two years the Pope had suffered from stomach cancer, and with his death, the Church lost one of its best-loved Popes. The Archbishop of Milan, Giovanni Battista Montini, was elected as Paul VI. The new Pope would play an important part in the life of Karol Wojtlya. In the autumn, he returned to Rome for the second session of the Council, held once more between October and December and took part in a pilgrimage made by the Council Fathers to the Holy Land. As the year ended, surprising news came from Rome. For eighteen months the Vatican and Communist authorities had been negotiating on the position of the new Archbishop of Krakow. Karol Wojtyla was appointed to the See on 30 December. He was just 43.

The installation took place on 8 March at Wawel Cathedral, where seven years earlier he had been consecrated the youngest bishop in Poland. He was now the second senior prelate in Poland, after Cardinal Wyszynski of Warsaw. With his new post came an apartment in the Archbishop’s Palace, but he chose to remain in his old lodgings in Via Kanonicza.

Returning to Rome in September for the third session of the Council, Archbishop Wojtyla was now deeply immersed in the broadening work of the Council. He made several contributions from the floor, and was the only bishop to greet the women present at the sessions in his opening address. When the session ended on 21 November, he left for a two-week pilgrimage in the Holy Land. The Council was due to close the following year. It was time to produce the final documents. In the Holy Land he worked on ideas for the great decree Gaudium et Spes, the optimistic document on the Church in the contemporary world. During the Spring of 1965, he visited Rome several times to work on the document with other theologians and bishops. As Pope, John Paul would regularly quote from the decree on which he had so closely worked and to which he had contributed.

When the Council closed on 8 December, Karol Wojtyla returned to Poland and threw himself into the Great Millennium celebrations which began on 1 January 1966. The year was full of mass gatherings and pilgrimages. Cardinal Wyszynski’s strategy worked. Millions of Poles participated in the liturgies, processions and events which greatly irritated the Communist authorities. The highlight was a Solemn Mass at the shrine of the Black Madonna at Czestochowa. Pope Paul VI had been invited by the hierarchy, but the Communist government made it impossible for the pontiff to come to Poland.

The following year, on 28 June, Karol Wojtyla was created a cardinal in the Sistine Chapel. It was a sign of Pope Paul VI’s approval of the Polish prelate whom he admired. When Pope Paul set up a commission to study the regulation of birth control, he appointed Wojtyla as a member. Although he did not attend the Roman meetings, he finally voted in favour of maintaining the Church s traditional teaching on contraception.

In the year of his appointment, the UB (the Polish secret police) circulated an internal memo on the new cardinal’s qualities: “It can be said that Wojtyla is one of the few intellectuals in the Polish Episcopate. He deftly reconciles… traditional
popular religiosity witn intellectual Catholicism… he has not, so far, engaged in open anti-state activity. It seems that politics are his weaker suit; he is over-intellectualized… He lacks organizing and leadership qualities, and this is his weakness…”

The authorities soon changed their opinion, and for the remaining years in Krakow the archbishop’s rooms were bugged with listening devices. The archbishop was aware, and often took guests outside to the garden to talk where he believed he would not be overheard. In his dealings with the Communist authorities, he became increasingly astute, and was regarded as a formidable foe.

On 10 January, the cardinal finally agreed to move into the large apartments traditionally used by the Archbishop of Krakow on Via Franciskanska. Rather than use the large ornate bedroom, he slept in a small side bedroom. The elaborate study was rarely used, as Archbishop Wojtyla preferred to sit at his wooden desk at the back of his private chapel, praying, writing and reading. Each Friday morning he crossed the road to the Franciscan Church where he prayed the Stations of the Cross.

The cardinal began to use his increased profile to challenge the Communist authorities. He continued to visit new parishes, and during homilies he was critical of the way in which Poland had developed. During 1968, Cardinal Wojtyla made 122 visits to the parishes of the archdiocese of Krakow, accompanying the image of the Black Madonna. He also re-vitalised the Corpus Christi Processions, hitherto prohibited by the Communists. During these ceremonies, Cardinal Wojtyla’s rhetoric improved, as he used his ringing baritone voice and stirred up the imagination of his listeners. He also was attentive to the needs of his priests. He urged them at all times to avoid ostentation and live more frugal lives, dedicated to prayer and the pastoral care of the people in the diocese.

When Cardinal Wyszynski was refused a passport by the Communist authorities to travel to Rome for the first Synod of
Bishops in 1972, Cardinal Wojtyla also refused to travel as a sign of solidarity for the Primate. Such prohibitions, however, were to backfire on the Communist government, which was shown to be petty and opposed to freedom of movement. Cardinal Wyszynski complained bitterly that the Holy See did not understand the depth of sufferings Polish Catholic enduring under the increasingly hostile Communist government.

The cardinal was inspired by the idea of the Synod of Bishops in Rome and replicated the concept in Krakow. In 1972, he inaugurated a seven-year synod which had not fully concluded by the time he was elected to the papacy in 1978.

In 1973, Cardinal Wojtyla decided to visit the Polish diaspora, travelling to Australia, New Guinea, the Philippines, Belgium and France. Further plans to travel had to be postponed the following year when he was appointed the principal relator of the Synod of Bishops on Evangelisation. The Holy Year of 1975, brought him to Rome for pilgrimages and a number of ceremonies, but foreign travel resumed again in 1976 when he made a six-week visit to the Polish communities in the United States. That same year he received a special mark of favour from Pope Paul VI, when he was asked to preach the Spiritual Exercises for the Pope and his Curia during Lent. The five-day retreat exposed the Polish prelate to a number of influential cardinals at the Vatican. While noting Wojtyla’s piety, they observed how well at ease he was and the authority with which he spoke.

By now, many of the young people who had listened to the young professor were married, and had children and grandchildren. Even as a cardinal, Karol Wojtyla continued to join his friends on country excursions, and enjoy canoeing along the rivers and lakes of his beloved Tatra mountains.

These were thus the formative years for the papacy. All the events which were to gain the attention of the world were already in place in the life of Karol Wojtyla, now John Paul II.


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