On this day in 1920, Karol Wojtyla was born in the Polish town of Wadowice, the youngest of the three children of his parents. Today the world knows him as Pope St. John Paul II, who led the Church from 1978-2005. His family life was marked by tragedy, his siblings and his mother all having died by the time Karol was an adolescent. His father, with whom he was very close, died in 1941. Of course, this was a period in which his native Poland also experienced great trauma – first with the invasion and occupation by Nazi Germany followed by decades-long oppression under a Soviet-controlled totalitarian regime. Throughout the hardships he suffered, Karol Wojtyla was a man of deep faith, filled with a passion for life. Shortly after his father’s death, Wojtyla began formation for the priesthood and was ordained in 1946. He loved the intellectual life, but he was also gifted pastorally, especially when it came to the care of young people. In 1958, at the age of 38, he became the auxiliary Bishop of Krakow, and was appointed the Archbishop there in 1964 while he was participating in the Second Vatican Council. He was elected pope in 1978, the first non-Italian to hold that office in 455 years, taking the name John Paul II in tribute to his predecessor who reigned as pope for only 33 days.
John Paul II was an exceptionally charismatic leader of the Church. His biographer, George Weigel, has said that John Paul II “embodied the cardinal virtue of courage.” This courage came from his supreme confidence in the transformative power of the Gospel. In a homily given during his 1995 visit to the United States, he told the people gathered: “Jesus Christ is the answer to the question posed by every human life, and the love of Christ compels us to share that great good news with everyone. We believe that the Death and Resurrection of Christ reveal the true meaning of human existence; therefore, nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in our hearts.” John Paul loved being human because he knew that Christ Jesus his Savior shares in that same humanity. This is what he was always trying to remind the world – those who were suffering under the various dehumanizing systems of totalitarianism as well as those who were suffering because of the dehumanizing ethos of moral relativism, that degrades human action and empties it of meaning. John Paul taught us over and over that we are loveable, that we are capable of giving ourselves to others in self-sacrificial love, that our actions matter, that we can come to know truth, and that we are called to heroic sanctity. He did this always by pointing to Christ and making Him the center of all things.
While John Paul II was an inspiration to so many throughout his life, he was inspired by the example of his own father. Recalling his childhood, especially after the death of his mother, the pope said that he often saw his father kneeling in prayer and that through his witness he came to understand that “being a man means being a man of prayer.” He continues: “My father was the person who explained to me the mystery of God.”
On this centenary of his birth, may we thank God for the fatherhood of Pope St. John Paul II, who introduced himself to the world in 1978 with the words: “Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ!”