The life of Karol Wojtyla, the man who brought the papacy to the people
By Alexander Stille
From the start, John Paul II was a different kind of pope. Initial accounts of his 1978 election focused on the fact that the new pontiffknown up till then as Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakowwould be the first non-Italian on the throne of St. Peter in 455 years and the first pope ever from Poland. But television images soon revealed another striking change. This pope, at 58, possessed the sturdy build of a rugby player. The three popes over the previous two decades had all been old and frail.
Our photo gallery spans the pope's youth to his last days at the vatican.
The one with the greatest appeal, Pope John XXIII, was 77 when elected in 1958. John initiated the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which tried to make the Roman Catholic Church more responsive to the needs of 20th-century Catholics. But, in keeping with a tradition stretching back to the early 19th century, never in his five-year pontificate did he leave Italy.
John's successor, Paul VI, in 15 years as pope, spent only 30 days outside Italy. Although he continued John's innovations, his thin, sickly, and severe appearance projected the image of a church closed in on itself and remote from the concerns of everyday life. Paul sometimes wore a hair shirt in order to mortify his flesh. Though a man of considerable learning and intellect, as a leader he was indecisive and wracked by inner doubts and apparently had even considered abdicating the papacy.
The unfortunate pope who succeeded Paul in 1978, John Paul Ithe immediate predecessor of John Paul IIseemed overwhelmed by the enormous responsibilities thrust upon him. He died of a heart attack 33 days after his election.
By contrast, John Paul II, with his ruddy Slavic face and relative youth, immediately conveyed a sense of both enormous physical vigor and a supremely confident faith. "Fear not! Open, open wide your doors to Christ!" he loudly proclaimed during the mass of his investiture.
The new pope's religious beliefs had been steeled in the terrible crucible of Poland's past, where it was not difficult to distinguish good from evil. "I am," he announced, "the son of a nation which has lived the greatest experience of history, whose neighbors condemned it to death more than once, but which survived and continued to be itself." His Polishness was a fundamental part of his personal and religious makeup. "This is the essential trait of his personality, an often disorienting blend of conservatism and modernity," wrote journalist Tad Szulc in a 1995 biography.
In Poland, the fight for religious freedom and national identity blended into a powerful messianic brand of Christianity, in which the nation's sufferings have often been compared to those of Christ's Calvary. Poland's embrace of Christianity coincided with the creation of the Polish nation-state in A.D. 966, and its long and bloody history has been marked by the careers of Christian martyrs who died defending both homeland and religion. And so it was during Karol Wojtyla's own lifetime.
He was born May 18, 1920, just after Poland regained its independence after World War I, in Wadowice, a small city southeast of Krakow. He began his religious training in an underground Catholic group during the nightmare of the six-year Nazi occupation of Poland in World War II. After the war, he entered the priesthood of a Polish church locked in a death struggle for religious freedom with a Communist government imposed by the Soviet Army.