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The making of a pope – III. Priest, teacher, bishop, pope

30 November, 1999

In the last installment of his series, Alan McGuckian S.J. covers the years from Wojtyla’s ordination to his election in the second conclave of 1978.

As a professor of philosophy Father Wojtyla fascinated his students. He usually spoke way above their heads, but he was so engaged with the serious questions himself that his enthusiasm was infectious. However, the locus for his most valuable work with young people was not in the lecture theatre but out on the lakes and on the ski slopes in the Tatra Mountains. He took small groups of students on camping trips. There was lots of fun, singsongs and laughter, but always serious conversation.

The young people had never met a priest – indeed any adult – who spoke so frankly about life, love and sex as did Father Wojtyla. These were the things that concerned them most deeply. He spoke about them and challenged the young people with the full richness of the Christian calling.

Huge demand

The core themes that he always came back to were; the link between love and responsibility and the centrality of the dignity of the human person. With those principles to guide him he addressed all the questions that thinking Poles were interested in but rarely heard discussed openly.

At this time he met and became lifelong friends with a couple called Poltawski. The wife Wanda Poltawska was a medical doctor who shared Wojtyla’s interest in the Church’s understanding of sexuality. Conversations between the priest-professor and this married couple led to his formulating ideas that eventually appeared in the book Love and Responsibility. In time ideas that first appeared in this book – indeed large parts of the text – would appear in Pope Paul’s encyclical Humanae Vitae.

Escaping to the mountains

One day in the summer of 1958, while he was on a trip with a group of students a telegram summoned him back to Krakow. There, Archbishop Baziak – who had replaced Sapieha in 1951 – told him that he had been nominated to replace one of the auxiliary bishops of Krakow who had just died. Wojtyla had certainly not expected this particular turn of events but accepted the decision and then informed the Archbishop that he had to get back to his students on the lake to be in time to say mass for them on Sunday!

Wojtyla’s easy, apparently casual, style and the fact that he was a regular contributor to radical Catholic publications meant that he was never a favourite of Cardinal Wyszinski. It is said that had the Primate had his way Professor Wojtyla would never have been made a bishop.

A council is called

Love and Responsibility

Unique perspective

Pope Paul 6th came to respect and rely on Karol Wojtyla whom he named cardinal in June 1967. As already mentioned, the Pole’s work was key in the formulation of the landmark encyclical Humanae Vitae. Paul also involved him in the development of the Synods of Bishops which arose out of the Council. In 1976 he was invited to give the Lenten retreat to Pope Paul and his staff. This was a singular honour and a sign of special distinction. That series of talks was later published as A Sign of Contradiction.

Crisis in Poland


At the new conclave in October the Cardinals began to look further afield, specifically to Poland and Krakow. The Austrian Cardinal Konig is often credited as the one who pushed Wojtyla’s candidacy most strongly. The other serious contender was Cardinal Benelli of Florence. By the second day, Wojtyla acknowledged that he could see the way things were going. “I could feel that the Holy Spirit was working among the Cardinals and I could already sense the outcome,” Wojtyla said later.

It all ended on October 16th. Crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square when the white smoke was seen to rise. As the Dean of the College of Cardinals called out the name of the one elected, the Italians gathered there had no idea who he was talking about. When they finally realised that it was a Pole they – and the rest of the world were stunned. In his very first address he won the hearts of all before him. Everyone sensed that an extraordinary chapter in the history of the papacy had begun.

On August 6th, 1978 Pope Paul 6 died. There were insiders who were already pointing to the possibility of the Cardinal from Krakow being next in line. However, even they acknowledged that a Polish Pope was a bridge too far. It was no surprise that another Italian, Albino Luciani, was elected Pope John Paul I. Providence intervened in a truly unexpected way when the ‘Smiling Pope’ died suddenly just one month into office. Tensions grew in Poland with a new Workers Defence Committee set up in defiance of the Communist government. Cardinal Wojtyla gradually emerged as the unofficial leader of the fight against communism. He had the knack of speaking ‘between the lines’. In his homilies and public utterances he attacked government oppression in a devastating way without ever saying anything explicit enough to get him arrested. His words gave solace to all those who were working for the overthrow of communism and helped sustain the alliance between radical workers, students and the church. The publications under his care in Krakow, Tygodnik Powszechny and Znak were a major contribution to the growth of the movement.

As the Council got under way Bishop Wojtyla began to be noticed as a serious contributor to the deliberations. He had a special interest in the major issues of religious freedom and the dialogue between the Church and the modern world. Having grown up under totalitarianism he had a unique perspective to offer on the question of freedom, supportive of but different from that of American Jesuit John Courtney Murray whose thinking was dominant. Gaudium et Spes, the constitution on the Church in the modern world is said to bear his stamp in many ways. was soon noticed in Rome, and Bishop Wojtyla was called to advise the special commission to look into issues of sexuality in advance of the Vatican Council. Though this especially thorny issue was not discussed at the Council, his call to Rome marked a watershed in Karol Wojtyla’s life; his first invitation to participate, as an expert, in the Church’s reflections at the highest level. Shortly after Wojtyla’s nomination as bishop, Angelo Roncalli was elected and became Pope John XXIII. Not long in office, he surprised the world by calling an Ecumenical Council. He thereby set in train a process that would not only transform the face of the Catholic Church but that would intimately affect the destiny of the recently consecrated Bishop Wojtyla.Often he needed to get away on his own and relished the freshness of skiing on a challenging slope by himself. On one occasion he wanted to go out on a section of a particularly difficult mountain. A local priest friend prevailed upon him to take with him as a guide a student from the area who was a very gifted skier and who, the priest hoped, might have a vocation to the priesthood. Wojtlya accepted the offer and so was introduced to Stanislaw Dziwisz. The young man did become a priest and has been Wojtyla’s private secretary since 1965.

At this time his incredible capacity for hard work became apparent to everyone. As well as his job at the Jagiellonian University he took on the post of part-time lecturer in philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin. A new movement, the Catholic Intellegentsia Clubs, gave him a forum to exchange ideas and inspire thinking Catholics all over Poland. He was in huge demand for lectures and talks in convents, parishes and to groups of workers and students. This gave him a great variety of audiences and he had the reputation for saying what he thought about society and communism, life and love.