Pope John Paul II: Biography, Facts & Death

Instructor: Michelle Penn

Michelle has a J.D. and her PhD in History.

In this lesson we will learn about Pope John Paul II's life and death, from being born Karol Wojtyla in Poland to becoming the most famous religious figure in Rome.

Stalin once asked, ''How many divisions has the pope?'', implying that brute force is all that matters in the world. One pope, John Paul II, helped to show that moral authority still mattered in the world, and is even credited with helping win the Cold War. But he didn't start out as the Pope; he started out as a boy in Poland.

Early Life

Emilia and Karol Wojtyla on their wedding day
Emilia and Karol Wojtyla picture

Karol Wojtyla, the man who would become Pope John Paul II, was born in Wadowice, a town in southern Poland near Krakow, in 1920. Karol's father was also named Karol, and his mother was named Emilia. Karol was nicknamed 'Lolek' as a child, and Lolek enjoyed playing sports as a child, especially in the role of goalkeeper in the game of soccer. Wadowice, like many Polish cities at the time, had a large Jewish population, and Lolek often played soccer with his Jewish neighbors.

the Wojtyla family home in Wadowice today, now a museum
Wojtyla family home in Wadowice today picture

Lolek's childhood was not all games and happiness--his mother died when he was only eight years old, and his older brother Edmund, a twenty-six year old doctor, died of scarlet fever when Lolek was twelve. Lolek's father was very religious (like the majority of Poles, he was Roman Catholic), and brought Lolek up to be the same. Religion helped Lolek deal with losing his mother and brother.

Basilica in Wadowice where young Lolek was baptized
Wadowice Basilica picture

Lolek on his first communion day
first communion picture

Karol graduated from high school in 1938 and began attending Jagiellonian University in Krakow, the same university his brother had attended. Jagiellonian was the oldest and most renowned university in Poland. At university, Karol studied philosophy, was involved in theatre, and worked on learning more languages. (By the time he became Pope he would be able to speak twelve languages).

Nazi Occupation

In 1939, Poland was invaded by Germany from west, and a few weeks later, from the east by the Soviet Union. The German and Soviet occupiers had divided Poland in half. Krakow was occupied by the Germans, and their invasion of Karol's homeland had kicked off World War II. Karol could not return to school because the Nazis closed the universities. Nazis taught that Poles, as Slavic peoples, were inferior and to be used as labor. As a result, only trade schools were allowed to remain open. In spite of this, many schools flourished underground, including a seminary taught by the archbishop of Krakow.

At the same time, Karol would have witnessed Jews being killed in the streets of Krakow by the Nazis and their Polish accomplices, and knew which of his Jewish friends and neighbors were arrested and taken away.

Karol's father died of a heart attack in 1941. His father's death apparently convinced Karol to enter an underground seminary led by the archbishop of Krakow.

As a seminarian in 1944, Karol also helped save the life of at least one Jewish survivor of a Nazi labor camp, a thirteen year old girl named Edith Zierer who later remembered the young seminarian as ''very good looking'' and was naturally thrilled when he became pope. In 1945, the war ended, and in 1946 Karol became a priest. As a priest, he was allowed to begin studying for his doctorate in theology at Jagiellonian University.

Karol Wojtyla officiates at a first communion in 1948
Karol as priest at first communion picture

From Bishop to Cardinal to Pope

In 1956, Karol was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Krakow, and from 1962 to 1965 he was very involved in the Second Vatican Council, also known as Vatican II. Vatican II was intended to reconcile some of the differences between the Catholic church and the modern world. For instance, the Second Vatican Council decided that masses no longer needed to be said in Latin, a language that not many people today understand. At the same time, the Second Vatican Council reaffirmed many of the traditional teachings of Catholic church, such as opposition to abortion and contraception. Two years later, in 1967, Karol became a cardinal.

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