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The making of a pope – I. Early years

30 November, 1999

Part I of an account of Pope John Paul II’s formative years, to commemorate his Silver Jubilee, by Alan McGuckian, S.J.


To understand Pope John Paul II we must examine his Polish upbringing. His deep spirituality, his love of literature, his profound empathy with suffering peoples – all of these make sense when we reflect on his experiences as a child and young man in Poland before and during the Second World War. In the first article of a new series, Fr. Alan McGuckian (with special thanks to Man of the Century: The life and times of Pope John Paul II, by Jonathan Kwitny) takes us through the pope’s formative years.

 “I think that God raised me to be Pope, to do something for the world. I have to do something for the good of the world and for Poland.” Pope John Paul said those words in the days following his election, to a Polish Bishop, Pieronek, who came to visit him in Rome.

When Karol Wojtila was born on May 18, 1920, his parents Karol and Emilia lived with his brother, fourteen-year-old Edmund, in southern Poland.

Six years before Karol’s birth Emilia had lost a baby daughter at birth, the cause of a deep sorrow that stayed with her for the rest of her life. Baby Karol (the Polish equivalent of Charles), soon gained the pet name, Lolek (Charlie). He was baptised two days later in the little church on the town square.

Karol senior was a quiet spoken army officer who served, at that stage in clerical positions. Emilia, though more outgoing that her husband, suffered from bad health and was often away in Krakow seeking medical treatment. Her complaint – chronic kidney and heart disease – meant that she was often worn out and Karol had to be kept away from her at those times.

Lolek made good friends with the other children round about, including Jerzy Kluger, the son of some Jewish neighbours. At primary school he was a keen soccer player and was the first choice goalkeeper on school teams. By this time Edmund was away at university studying Medicine. By 1929 Emilia’s condition worsened and she died on April 13th. It is reported that Karol senior went up to the local school and informed the teachers. In his own uniquely reserved and somewhat odd way he then went home. When the teacher gave the sad news to Lolek his reply was quite extraordinary for a child of nine: “It was God’s will.” This precocious spiritual maturity was more a source of worry to the teacher than a cause for wonder.

Only three years later, when Lolek was only twelve, Edmund, now a doctor, contracted scarlet fever from one of his patients and died almost immediately. Pope John Paul later said: “Today, antibiotics would have saved him … My mother’s death made a deep impression …. And 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.”

Influence of his father
Lolek and his father were thrown together by the gradual stripping away of the rest of their family. He saw his father change and deepen under the force of the blows. In an interview with French journalist, André Frossard, Pope John Paul said: “Almost all my memories of childhood and adolescence are connected with my father.” The violence of the blows that struck him opened up spiritual depths in him; his grief found its outlet in prayer.

The mere sight of seeing him on his knees had a decisive influence on my early years. He was so hard on himself that he had no need to be hard on his son; his example alone was sufficient to inculcate discipline and a sense of duty.

And so, Lolek was a serious prayerful boy. As an altar server he always got to church early and his friends found him praying when they arrived. He first came to the attention of the famous Archbishop of Krakow Adam Sapieha when he gave the welcome address at a High School reception for the visiting prelate. Sapieha was very impressed and turned to the headmaster. “Does that young man intend to become a priest? We could do with someone like that in the Church,” he said. The headmaster replied that he intended to go to university and study literature. “That’s a pity.” Their paths would cross again.

Aspiring actor
Wadowice boasted a lively local theatre organised by a local family, the Kotlarczyks.
By the age of twelve young Lolek was involved in moving sets around and was quickly smitten with the acting bug.

He and a local girl, Halina Krolikiewicz, soon emerged as the two emerging local talents. They first met in their School Drama Group, where they both had a special love for Polish language and literature, and they soon found themselves playing lead parts on the stage of the local theatre.

Since they acted opposite each other in Wadowice and later in Krakow many people have assumed that there must have been a romantic chemistry between them. Halina has always denied it, saying that they never dated each other. In fact, she has said that there was one other actress, Kasia Zak who might have won the heart of the future pope. Once, after rehearsing a love scene with Kasia, Lolek said to her; “I wish it were so in reality.” Kasia wasn’t interested and shrugged off his tentative advances. Friends say that Lolek was crushed.

Love of literature

Beauty is not to stay hidden
Neither is salt of the earth to be used only in the kitchen.
But beauty is to make you eager to work
And work is for man to gain his resurrection.

The biographer Kwitny points out that Norwid’s central point about the nobility of work would appear forty-six years later as the cornerstone of the encyclical Laborem Exercens. Young Wojtyla didn’t win the competition but other things were clearly developing.

If drama and literature had a deep spiritual and philosophical significance for the secondary school student they would take on an added political import when he moved to Krakow and university.

Move to Krakow
In September 1938 the Wojtylas moved to Krakow where eighteen-year-old Karol enrolled in the Jagiellonian University to study Polish literature. Founded in 1386, it counted Copernicus and a roll call of the giants of Poland among its former students. On September 6, 1939, something happened that put the very existence of everything that the Jagiellonian stood for at risk. Hitler’s army captured Krakow.

So, at the beginning of his second year Karol Wojtyla saw the Gestapo surround his university and close it down. Initially students met clandestinely with professors and continued their studies. Then a meeting of all university staff was called. The Gestapo arrived once more, herded the teachers into lorries and carried them off to concentration camps. Many of them didn’t survive.

This was part of a clear policy to destroy Polish culture. Wojtyla had to make a decision about his response. He was convinced that the soul of his country was preserved in its literature and drama and he would keep the flame alive in defiance of Nazi persecution. He felt he had a mission to restore Polish drama to the greatness of former times. “I am not a cavalier of the sword, but rather an artist,” he wrote.

Going underground
Even though their professors were almost all under arrest students continued to meet in small underground groups to further their education. They had to move from one apartment to another to avoid detection. If the Nazis discovered them it would mean arrest or, more likely, summary execution. In those close-knit groups romance flourished for many of the students, but not for Karol Wojtyla, who was always gracious and companionable but focussed on some deeper purpose.

Wojtyla was involved in another act of sedition when he was involved in the setting up of the Rhapsody Theatre. Small audiences met behind closed blinds to watch Karol and others perform highly serious plays celebrating values of Polish culture, while watchmen kept an eye out for Nazi patrols. The director of the theatre was the same Kotlarczyk who had introduced Karol to the stage back in Wadowice. Some in the audiences found his choice of serious classics far too heavy for their liking but as far as his leading male actor was concerned it was a case of the more serious the better. While Karol followed the leader in all his preferences he himself made one suggestion for inclusion in their repertoire, namely a play based on the poetry of St. John of the Cross. As well as a deep devotion to Poland there was another even more urgent call on his heart: a call to the priesthood.

From the beginning, Lolek’s love of acting and of Polish literature in general had a very high purpose. He once said that he believed the Polish classics were better than Shakespeare because they were imbued with a spirituality and sense of transcendence. Even as a boy he was influenced in obviously life-changing ways by his reading. At fifteen he and Halina were vying with each other for first place in a school Poetry Reading competition. Halina chose a simply crowd-pleasing poem and won the competition. Lolek, on the other hand, read a very serious piece by a 19th century Polish poet, Cyprian Norwid. The following are some lines from that poem: