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The making of a Pope – II. The priesthood

30 November, 1999

This is the second instalment of The making of a Pope, Fr. Alan McGuckian’s account of the life of Pope John Paul II before his election to the chair of Peter.

As well as his studies and drama, two other experiences marked this period of Karol Wojtyla’s life most profoundly: forced labour and meeting Jan Tyranowski.

The occupying force insisted that every man over the age of fourteen should work at an ‘approved job’. Karol worked first of all in a quarry and later in the Solvay Sodium factory. In the quarry his job was to load huge lumps of quarried stone onto railway wagons and help with the maintenance of the wagons. A friend of his was involved in preparing the dynamite charges, and when Karol had some time free he would help with stuffing the dynamite into holes in the rock. Unbeknownst to him, this friend was a member of the underground Home Army who regularly smuggled quantities of dynamite out in his lunch box. The strictly non-violent Karol knew nothing about it.

Even though he wrote a poem, The Quarry, based on his experiences he was very happy when some friends arranged a transfer to the factory where they could work indoors, protected from the freezing Polish winters. At the Solvay works, his job was to mix chemicals and he regularly had to carry two buckets suspended on a pole across his shoulder a distance of a hundred yards from the storage bins to the boilers. It was back-breaking work but there was always energy left over for study whenever there was free time. On the night shift his fellow workers often saw him in his knees in prayer on the factory floor. Seemingly some of them didn’t take kindly to these displays of piety and they used throw things at him and tease him. He wasn’t worried by any of this.

Brushes with death

In August 1944, when the Russians had taken Eastern Poland, the German officer commanding the Krakow region determined to nip in the bud any potential uprising in Krakow. On the night of the 19th German soldiers went from house to house, picking up all able-bodied men and taking them into custody, many to their deaths. At Karol’s house they thoroughly searched the upper floors while he waited behind the door of his basement flat, trembling. For some reason – he was convinced it was miraculous – they assumed no one lived in the basement and left.

As the world knows, these were not to be the only brushes with death in the life of Karol Wojtyla.

Jan Tyranowski

Karol’s new mentor was in his forties, trained as an accountant, but now he supported himself and his mother by working as a tailor. More significantly he was a man with an extraordinary prayer life. He devoted four hours every morning to meditation as well as other prayer periods through the day. Karol began attending weekly meetings which Tyranowski entitled the Living Rosary. At these gatherings he introduced his new band of disciples to a brand of religion that was deeply mystical, and he encouraged them to apply it to every area of their lives. He called them to a strict discipline and recommended that they keep a diary with a view to bringing God directly into every moment of their day.

The awful intensity of this man and his lifestyle at first put Karol off, but he was gradually drawn to him. He later said: “What he tried to teach us was new. He wanted to pull new listeners to this new life. Young people think they know everything … At the beginning they just couldn’t understand him – the truth about a … wholly internal life that was part of Jan and, for them, completely unknown.”

Union with God

He was one of those unknown saints, hidden amid the others like a marvellous light at the bottom of life, at a depth where night usually reigns. He disclosed to me the riches of his inner life, of his mystical life. In his words, in his spirituality and in the example of a life given to God alone, he represented a new world that I did not yet know. I saw the beauty of a soul opened up by grace.

Mieczslaw Malinski was a friend of Karol’s who was part of the Tyranowski group at that time and later became a priest. He started out very skeptical but was gradually convinced of the value of the new teaching they were receiving. His assessment is very telling: “Jan’s influence with Lolek was gigantic. I can safely say that if it wasn’t for him neither Wojtyla nor I would have become priests.”

Call to priesthood

At twenty I had already lost all the people I loved. God was in a way preparing me for what would happen. My father was the person who explained to me the mystery of God and made me understand. Even now, when I awake at night, I remember my father kneeling, praying.

He says that his father’s death was a turning point in his life after which he became aware of his true path. His growing conviction that God was preparing him and calling him to a new life issued in action on an evening in November 1942 when, after work and dressed in his overalls, he went for his regular confession at the cathedral in Krakow.

He confided his decision to become a priest to his confessor. Immediately he was brought to see Archbishop Sapieha, the one who had been very impressed on hearing Karol give the speech of welcome at the High School in Wadowice some years previously. After that one interview he was accepted as a seminarian for the Archdiocese, though in his heart he had decided that he would later seek to be a Carmelite, in imitation of his great hero, John of the Cross. In the short term he had to begin his training and, as all seminaries were closed, that had to be done ‘underground’.

Grappling with philosophy

For a long time I couldn’t cope with the book, and I actually wept over it. My literary training centered around the humanities and had not prepared me for all the scholastic theses and formulas. I had to cut a path through a thick undergrowth of concepts, without even being able to identify the ground over which I was moving. It was not until two months later that I was able to make something of it.

For two years he lived a double – indeed triple – life: he was factory worker, underground actor, and underground seminarian. Since his choice of the seminary was a crime punishable by death he couldn’t afford to tell too many people. When Kotlarczyk, the head of the theatre eventually heard, he was appalled, convinced that Wojtyla’s greatest contribution to humanity should be made on stage. After those two years the Archbishop sent for him one evening under cover of darkness, and he quickly packed a bag and went to live in the Palace. When the Germans were driven out of Krakow it was possible for the seminarians to attend classes in a more public way.

“Finish what you start”

Karol Wojtyla was ordained a priest of the Krakow diocese on the Feast of All Saints, 1946. It was a completely private ceremony, separate from all his classmates because the Archbishop had decided to send him to Rome for further studies. A strange providence surrounded this first exposure to the Church outside of Poland. When thinking of Rome, the Archbishop was not thinking of Wojtyla but rather of another seminarian, Starowieyski, who was a nobleman – a baron – and whom Sapieha believed would be a bishop one day. Wojtyla, who had always been an excellent student, would make a good travelling companion for his high-born colleague, or so the thinking went …

To Rome and back

As regards his studies, the deep-seated Carmelite attraction had not gone away and he was determined that his doctoral thesis would be on St. John of the Cross. However, the Angelicum was the epicentre of Thomistic studies and the professors, who included the legendary Garrigou-Lagrange, insisted that he first of all master the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. In his preliminary essay on St. Thomas he scored top marks. A deep-seated respect for Aquinas, acquired in those days, shines through many years later in the landmark encyclical, Fides et Ratio (1998).

Back home in Krakow his great spiritual mentor, Jan Tyranowski, became seriously ill and died. Karol wanted to return home in the summer to be with him, but Sapieha, his bishop, insisted that he use the vacation to travel to France and Belgium and get a sense of developments in the Church in those countries. Yet again the strong demand of obedience to his religious superior! While in France he was impressed with the Worker Priest movement but compared very unfavourably the poor church attendance of the faithful with the robust devotion of his fellow Poles.

Padre Pio prophecy

Whatever about that prophecy, he finished his doctoral work on “Faith according to St. John of the Cross”, and he was glad to return home to Poland, where he took up office as a humble curate in a rural parish. He loved the simple work of a priest, saying mass, hearing confessions and caring for the people in the parish, especially the children. His homilies were, initially at least, too long and too heavy for the ordinary listeners. He could never get away from the deeply serious concerns of his own heart and head, about the nature of the human person, our divine destiny and demands of morality.

After a short time in the country he was moved back into Krakow and the parish of St. Florian. There, his priestly work was mixed in with some tutoring to university students and chaplaincy to other young intellectuals. He loved it all.

Another doctorate

Rooted as he was in the tradition of St. Thomas and St. John of the Cross, these last studies gave him the desire and confidence to enter into a dialogue of equals with the modern world.

However, his success with the intellectual apostolate was to lead to another unasked-for intervention of authority. The priest professor of philosophy at the Jagiellonian University convinced the Archbishop that Fr. Wojtyla had the makings of a university professor and so he was ordered to prepare for another doctorate, this time in philosophy. The young priest represented strongly that he wanted to be allowed to continue the very worthwhile work of a priest, but to no avail. Obedience led him – reluctantly – to the study of the German phenomenologist, Max Scheler, the subject of his second doctoral thesis. Before long he reported to friends that he was really excited at how Scheler opened up new perspectives on the understanding of the human person. One very significant thing that happened to him during his stay in Italy was a visit to San Giovanni in Rotondo to see the famous Capuchin mystic, Padre Pio. Like thousands of other pilgrims he queued up to make his confession to the extraordinary Italian friar. Much later he confided to a fellow cardinal that “Padre Pio told him he would gain the highest post in the Church”. Wojtyla understood this to mean that he might be cardinal one day.Young Father Wojtyla quickly settled into the Belgian College in Rome and got down to his studies at the Angelicum, the university run by the Dominicans. Letters home to Krakow show that he was enchanted with his new surroundings – Rome, the Eternal City once washed by the blood of the martyrs. For a long time Karol had a sense that his true vocation was to live a life devoted to prayer as a Carmelite and he sought permission to leave the seminary and join the novitiate. Archbishop Sapieha put an end to that when he said, “You are to finish what you have started.”Karol kept up his work at the Sodium factory and his acting in the Rhapsody Theatre, while at the same time meeting Seminary professors at the bishop’s palace. In spare moments at work he would sit beside the boiler he would pore over heavy texts in philosophy and theology. One book, a text on metaphysics caused him particular pain.The winter of 1941 saw Karol senior confined to bed and on February 21st when his son was out buying medicines for him, he died. Looking back on that experience the Pope said:It was Jan who first introduced Karol Wojtyla to the writings of St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic who would be one of his great inspirations in life. From St. John he would learn that union with God requires a person to give up everything – everything they know as well as all that the own. Looking back he would feel that in Jan Tyranowski he had a living example of that quest for union with God before his very eyes:Jan Tyranowski was an eccentric who lived not far from Wojtyla’s appartment. With his long hair and piercing eyes he looked more like an Eastern Maharishi than a devout Catholic from 1940s Krakow. And yet, when Karol went to his local Church, St. Stanislas Kostka’s, looking for a youth group, the overworked curate asked Tyranowski to give them some guidance.One night as he was making his way home from the factory in the dark a German army truck hit him from behind and knocked him down. A woman found him lying on the road covered in blood and unconscious. His life was probably saved by a German officer who stopped his car and flagged down another truck and ordered the driver to take the young man to hospital. Karol woke up aching all over and with a cast on his arm. His condition was bad enough to merit staying in hospital for a few weeks until the bed was needed for another patient. He spoke of this time off work as a ‘retreat’, an opportunity to pray and confirm a decision about the future direction of his life.