Biography of Pope John Paul II

Biography of Pope John Paul II

Media General News Service
Saturday, April 2, 2005

Illustration by Arnel Reynon

Illustration by Arnel Reynon 


Pope John Paul II was born Karoi Jozef Wojtyla on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, Poland, a small city near Cracow. He was the second of two sons born to Karoi Wojtyla, a former officer in the Habsburg army, and Emilia Kaczorowska.

He was elected the 264th pope on Oct. 16, 1978, and at the age of 58, succeeded John Paul I. John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and the church’s first pope of Slavic origin.

As a youngster, he was an athlete, actor and playwright. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in Cracow’s Jagiellonian University in 1938 and in a school for drama.

The Nazis closed the university during the German invasion and occupation of Poland during World War II, and Wojtyla was forced to work in a quarry and then a chemical factory to avoid being deported to Germany.

 Reader Survery

How will history remember Pope John Paul II?
As a notable religious leader
As a world leader who effected more than people’s faith
As a pope, no more and no less

He managed in 1942 to begin studies in the seminary of Cracow, which was operating in secret because of the Nazi occupation. Those studies continued after the seminar re-opened at the end of World War II, and he was ordained a priest on Nov. 1, 1946.

Wojtyla completed his doctorate in theology in Rome in 1948, and went on to become a professor of moral theology and social ethics at the Cracow seminary. He also served as a member of the faculty of theology at the Catholic University of Lublin.

Pope Pius XII nominated him to be archbishop of Cracow in 1964, and during his tenure, he participated in the Second Vatican Council, which contributed to documents that became the Decree on Religious Freedom and the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the modern world.

Wojtyla became a cardinal on June 26, 1967. 

On May 13, 1981, John Paul II was wounded in the right arm and abdomen while he rode in an open car that was circling St. Peter’s Square before a general audience. He underwent six hours of surgery and remained hospitalized for 22 days before returning to celebrate mass at the 1600th anniversary of the Council of Constantinople. Four days after the shooting, he recited the Angelus, a devotion that is recited three times a day, and then said, “Pray for the brother who shot me, whom I have sincerely forgiven.”

Mehmet Ali Agca, a member of a Turkish militant group, was convicted of shooting John Paul II, but was pardoned by Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi in 2000 and returned to Turkey to complete a sentence for the death of a newspaper editor.

John Paul II traveled more than any other pope in history, and made 104 foreign trips — more than all the previous popes combined. He made several trips to his Polish homeland, including a poignant return in 2003 at age 82. He addressed the United Nations, and visited Cuba, where he met with Fidel Castro, and also traveled to Israel. He had audiences with four U.S. presidents — Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton — and hosted other world leaders and dignitaries including Yasser Arafat, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela and Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain.

The pope presided at 147 beatification ceremonies, including the first beatification of a married couple in 2001.

It is estimated that more than 17 million have participated in general audiences in St. Peter’s Square during John Paul II’s tenure.