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The Life and Ministry of Saint John Paul II

Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, lived an unusually varied life before his priestly ordination.  As a teen, he split stone at a quarry, wrote poetry and supported a network that smuggled Jews to safety during the German occupation of Poland.

As a young priest, he was a favorite with students at Lublin University who flocked to his classes and joined him on camping, hiking and canoeing trips.  As the second-youngest cardinal ever named by the Vatican, he ran an informal office and celebrated holidays with Krakow actors.

It should have been no surprise that he would redefine the traditional role and demeanor of the papacy by traveling extensively, continuing to enjoy outdoor activities and taking on a wide range of political and moral issues.

As a high school student in his hometown of Wadowice, in southern Poland, Wojtyla impressed classmates by the intense way he would pray in church, a habit of deep meditation that remained with him for life

"Even as a boy he was exceptional," said Rafat Tatka, a neighbor who knew the young boy as Lolek, a nickname that translates as Chuck.

The Nazi takeover of Poland in September 1939 meant an official end to all religious training and cultural activities, but Wojtyla attended an underground university in Krakow and helped set up a clandestine theater group that performed in stores and homes.  In addition to the quarry, he worked in a chemical factory - experiences that provided material for his poetry and papal writings on labor.

He participated in daily Mass, spiritual exercises, Marian devotion and Bible study.  Friends said that when his father died in 1941, Karol knelt for 12 hours in prayer at his father's bedside.

Soon after, he withdrew from the theatrical group and began studying for the priesthood, a decision that surprised many of his friends, who tried to convince him his talent lay in the theater.  He studied in a clandestine seminary operated in Cardinal Adam Sapieha's Krakow residence in defiance of Nazi orders forbidding religious education. 

The archbishop saw him as a future church leader.  Yet the young man who wrote poems and a doctoral dissertation on the mysticism of Saint John of the Cross was attracted to monastic contemplation.  Twice during these years he tried to join the Discalced Carmelites but was turned away with the advice, "You are destined for greater things."

He was ordained November 1, 1946, just as the communist regime replaced the Germans at the end of the war.

Father Wojtyla was sent to study at Rome's Angelicum University, where he earned a doctorate in ethics.  Back in Poland in 1948, the young priest was assigned to the rural village of Niegowic for a year before returning to Krakow.

There, at Saint Florian Parish, he devoted much of his attention to young people - teaching, playing soccer and inviting university students to his house for discussions.

After earning a second doctorate in moral theology, Father Wojtyla began teaching at Lublin University in 1953, commuting by train from his Krakow parish.  He published more than 100 articles and several books on ethics and other subjects, and at age 36 became a full professor at the Institute of Ethics in Lublin.

Father Wojtyla's interest in outdoor activities remained strong, and younger companions called him "the eternal teenager."  Groups of students regularly joined him for hiking, skiing, bicycling, camping and kayaking, accompanied by prayer, outdoor Masses and theological discussions.

Father Wojtyla was on a kayaking trip in 1958 when, at age 38, he was named an auxiliary bishop of Krakow - the youngest bishop in Poland's history.  He continued to live a simple life, shunning the trappings that came with his position.  For instance, he only left his Krakow apartment for the more luxurious bishop's residence after friends moved his belongings one day when he was out of town.

In 1964, shortly before the end of the Second Vatican Council, he was named archbishop of Krakow.  Just three years later, at the age of 47, he became a cardinal.  But he continued his open approach in Krakow, seeing visitors without appointments and holding seminars at the cardinal's residence for actors, workers, students, priests and nuns.

In 1976, after touring several U.S. cities and attending the International Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia, Cardinal Wojtyla attended a conference of Polish-Americans at Saint Mary's College in Orchard Lake, Michigan.  True to form, having sat through a string of indoor meetings, one afternoon he canceled a session to go canoeing.

Over the last several years of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II revealed an aspect of his personal life that he did not want history to overlook.

In autobiographical books and in selected talks, the pontiff emphasized that what kept him going was not the power of the papacy but the spiritual strength that flowed from his priestly vocation.

"With the passing of time, the most important and beautiful thing for me is that I have been a priest for more than 50 years, because every day I can celebrate Holy Mass!" he told some 300,000 young people in Italy in 1997.

While many writers have recounted the pope's early life as a semi-political pilgrimage under Nazi occupation and communist domination in Poland, the pope himself remembered those years as a crucial time of spiritual formation.  In his 1996 book, "A Gift and Mystery," he recalled how the sense of being called to the priesthood filled him with joy, but it also cut him off from acquaintances and other interests.  In one of the most moving passages he ever wrote as pope, he said he still feels a debt to friends who suffered "on the great altar of history" during World War II, while he studied in a clandestine seminary.

Adapted from From Pope John Paul II to Benedict XVI, by Sister Mary Ann Walsh, RSM with Catholic News Service
© 2005, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, all rights reserved.