Karol Wojtyla’s early years were spent in a setting much like that of any child growing up in Poland at the time, with a loving and religious family life and the usual schoolboy friendships. But tragedy entered his life at the age of eight when his mother died after a short illness. The death of his older brother Edmund, only four years later, who as a young doctor became fatally infected with scarlet fever, and his father’s death in the first year of World War II, left Karol Wojtyla with no immediate family before he turned 21. Despite the loss of his loved ones, he was an amiable boy and continued to enjoy the pleasures of childhood and youth. He had a number of good friends with whom he shared a love of sports, particularly soccer. In his teens he developed a passion for both literature and theater and was considered an excellent actor. He was equally passionate about nature and cherished the time he could spend outdoors, canoeing, hiking and skiing as much as possible.
Pope St. John Paul II’s spiritual roots lie in a distinctly Polish approach to Catholicism; his deep piety and unwavering devotion to Mary can be traced to his parents and his beloved homeland, where Mary is “Queen”. This faith and devotion were forged by his early family life and would be tested and strengthened as he witnessed firsthand the horrors his country suffered, first under Nazi occupation and later under Communist control.
From an early age, Pope St. John Paul II had an avid interest in the world beyond his native Poland. He became a student of other peoples, other languages, other lands. As a young priest he perfected his French, Latin, and Greek and later he learned Italian, German and English. He studied Spanish in order to read in the original the works of one of his favorite mystics, St. John of the Cross. From the time he became a bishop, he traveled extensively, a practice that would serve him well as pastor of the Universal Church.
Pope St. John Paul II was one of the most charismatic religious leaders of our time. He was a man whose actions truly reflected his beliefs. Our Holy Father preached one message – love – to the entire world, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. He asked everyone to be bearers of hope in a world frequently filled with desperation; to be men and women of faith in societies that seem to have lost any need for God; and to be channels of love and generosity in an age of unbridled egoism.
Young people energized the Pope. He sang with them, waved his staff for them, and made funny faces at them. He continually challenged youth. In 1998, he talked to young Cubans about bravery and commitment; about “the courageous response of people who do not want to let life pass them by, but rather seek to shape their own personal history and the history of the society around them.” Our Holy Father wanted that commitment from the young, that whatever path they take in life, they walk as dedicated Christians.
He inaugurated World Youth Day in 1986 to celebrate the faith of young Catholics worldwide, and ever since then he would either invite young people to Rome or travel with them on pilgrimages around the globe. These biennial festivities brought together the best elements of a rock concert and a spiritual retreat. Youth, he believed should learn to enjoy both.
For teens and young adults, Pope St. John Paul II was a sign of hope in a world that he acknowledged is often filled with darkness: children who go hungry and die, homeless people, violence in families, sexual abuse, drug abuse that destroys bodies, minds, and hearts. But Christ’s light shines brightly through that darkness, and those who remain close to Jesus in prayer come to share in His light and bring it to others who are lost in the dark.
Pope St. John Paul II promised that, through Christ, young men and women will not only work toward building a better world but find the truths and values on which to build their own happiness. “Remember,” he said, “Christ is calling you, the Church needs you, the Pope believes in you, and he expects great things of you! Even though you are young, the time for action is now! It is time to let your light shine!”
On October 16, 1978, only two days after the cardinals convened in the Sistine Chapel, the white smoke rising from the chapel’s chimney announced they had chosen a new Pope. One hour later, Pope St. John Paul II appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. The first non-Italian Pope in four and a half centuries spoke his first official words in fluent Italian: “Sia lodato Gesu Cristo” (“Praise be Jesus Christ”).
Pope St. John Paul II was one of the most beloved religious leaders of the 20th century. His dramatic and vigorous reign has resulted in profound changes in the Catholic Church and throughout the world. He was an ardent spokesman for human dignity and a beacon of hope for the 21st century.
On April 2, 2005 our eternal Father called His beloved son, Pope St. Joh Paul II, home. The life of Pope St. John Paul II challenges all of us to bear witness to Christ in the world, and to become the proclaimers of the new evangelization or our world.