Saint Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II defined the Church’s engagement with the world after the Second Vatican Council. His charisma complemented immense intellectual gifts, which he used to argue against social forces that denigrated human dignity and freedom.
Karol Jozef Wojtyla was born in Poland, and had lost his mother, father, and older brother by the time he was 21 years old. He enrolled in an underground seminary in Krakow during World War II and was ordained a priest in 1946. He went on to further his studies in Rome, and eventually earned doctorates in theology and philosophy and began a varied and rigorous academic career.
Communists thought he was a harmless intellectual and did not oppose his election to bishop in 1958. He attended sessions of the Second Vatican Council and contributed significantly to the discussion. The experience of the council changed him and deepened his commitment to renew the Church. He was named archbishop of Krakow in 1964, elevated to a cardinal in 1967, and provided leadership to the faithful of Poland as they faced persecution under Communist rule.
When Pope Paul VI died on August 6, 1978, Wojtyla went to Rome to elect a new pope. The cardinals elected Cardinal Albino Luciani of Venice, who took the name John Paul to honor the two popes who preceded him and who had guided the Second Vatican Council. When Pope John Paul died after 33 days in office, the cardinals gathered once again, and this time, they elected Wojtyla, who took the name John Paul II as a symbol of continuity. He was the first non-Italian elected to head the Church in 455 years.
When he stepped out onto the balcony facing St. Peter’s square, his first words were these: "Be not afraid! Open up—no, swing wide the gates to Christ. Open up to his saving power the confines of the state, open up economic and political systems, the vast empires of culture, civilization and development... Be not afraid!"
John Paul II answered the challenge to engage the modern world that the Church articulated in a new way in the Second Vatican Council. He had great charisma and passion, and made papal visits to 124 countries. He promoted ecumenical and interfaith initiatives, and began the World Youth Day celebrations. He wrote 14 encyclicals and five books, and he canonized 482 saints. He was an evangelist, a defender of human life, a peacemaker, and a promoter of authentic human freedom.
His later years were marked by a struggle with Parkinson’s disease, but he did not shy from presenting himself in public and the world witnessed in his suffering the human dignity that he had argued for during his pontificate. When he died in the spring of 2005, the campus community gathered at the Grotto to pray for him and the Church—the image below captures that moment.
Pope John Paul II was beatified in 2011, and was canonized a saint on April 27, 2014, along with Pope John XXIII. His images are used here courtesy Catholic.org.
Notre Dame honors this pope with several initiatives. The Center for Ethics and Culture honors leaders who promote the Gospel of Life with its Evangelium Vitae medal, named after John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical. The Satellite Theological Education Program in the University’s Institute for Church Life offers a six-week, online course on John Paul II’s theology of the body; learn more here.
Saint Pope John Paul II, who taught us to be not afraid as we open wide the doors to Christ, pray for us!