Remembering Pope John Paul II

Matthew Daniels

Last Saturday, foreshadowed by the gloomy clouds and later relentless showers, the 265th pope John Paul II died peacefully in his tiny room in the Vatican.

Attending a religious institution whose values and beliefs are grounded in Catholic doctrine and teachings, aids in the understanding of the Pope’s significance as the central authority for the Roman Catholic Church. It is about time we learned some more about the man who lived his life teaching, healing, praying and breaking tradition (he was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years) during his impressive 27-year reign.

John Paul II was no stranger to human suffering and his empathy may have been rooted in early childhood losses. Born in 1920 in Wadowice, Poland to a retired army officer and tailor father and schoolteacher mother, he was christened Karol Wojtyla. It was only in 1978 that he took on the name John Paul II in memory of John Pope I who died in 1978 just 33 days after becoming pope due to cardiac arrest. Young Wojtyla lost his mother a month before his 9th birthday. At the age of 12, his 26-year-old brother Edmund, a physician, died of scarlet fever.

As a young student, he enjoyed poetry, religion and theater. In 1938, Wojtyla enrolled at Jagiellonian University to study literature and philosophy. He was also rumored to be a man of athletic prowess. While at the university, he founded an underground theatre company whose plays frequently dealt with oppression. In 1940, when the Germans invaded Poland, he managed to escape deportation and imprisonment by taking a job as a stonecutter. It was only a few months later in 1941 that his father passed away before his son took on religion as a central focus in life.

In 1946 he was ordained a priest after taking refuge with the Archbishop of Krakow in Poland. In 1958 he became auxiliary bishop of Krakow, then bishop in 1964 and cardinal by Pope Paul VI in 1967.When he was first ordained Pope in 1978, the ambitious Pope John Paul II took an active role in defending the rights of Poles against the forces of communism. The young 58-year old helped inspire many to revolt against rigid and unfair governments guilty of violating human rights. This marked the beginning of the non-violent journey to conquer the Soviet Empire during the Cold War.

Pope John Paul II was also quite the linguistic connoisseur as he was fluent in eight languages and even dedicated himself to learning Spanish while he was Pope.

In 1981, both President Ronald Reagan and the Pope were nearly assassinated. A Turk named Mehmet Ali Agca shot him twice, and told authorities he was working for the Bulgarian Intelligence Service. It was widely known at the time that Bulgaria was linked to the Soviet Union, whom the Pope had denounced publicly only three years prior. Instead of seeking retribution, John Paul II confronted his supposed enemy by visiting him in jail by showing mercy instead of anger, which exemplify Christian values of forgiveness.

A major component of John Paul II’s papacy was dedicated to restoring the church by referring back to conservative tradition. He supported biblical doctrine at all times and was not in favor of allowing the ordination of women, which proved to be controversial. At World Day in 1999, the Pope’s sermon touched upon people’s reticence towards fully believing and accepting Jesus Christ.

“In the contemporary world many people,” Pope John Paul II said, “Fail to recognize the God of Jesus Christ as Creator and Father…cultivating a vague sort of religious feeling…have built God in their own image and likeness, others again consider Him to be totally out of reach.”

Many liberal leaning theologians found this stance to be too rigid and bias, yet the pope was uncompromising since he was a man of conviction.

A passionate pro-life advocate, more controversy arose when the pope condemned the distribution of condoms in Africa. His opinion on abortion, contraceptives and euthanasia was that such vices fostered a culture of death. Furthermore, in July of 2003, he launched an anti-gay marriage campagne which also incited public backlash. Although he was perceived by some as inflexible, he always clearly stated his position for the public to understand.

The pope may best be remembered for his undying pursuit of equality for all people, regardless of religion, creed or faith. In 1986, on a televised visit to a synagogue in Rome, Pope John Paul II became the first pope to enter a Jewish house of worship. It was in the Central Synagogue that he publicly apologized to Jews for mistreatment over the centuries. In 1998, he apologized for the church’s treatment of Jews. He was said to have left a note in the cracks of a wall on the Jew’s holy site asking for forgiveness for the past sins of Christians against Jews.

Pope John Paul II was the most traveled pope, boasting 170 visits to over 115 countries in the past 20 years. Besides condoning virtues and condemning vices, the pope was a man who led by example. He once told followers that only prayer and faith can make man happy.

In all, Pope John Paul II was a people’s pope who showed great empathy for those in pain or suffering. His legacy will continue.