Updated: Oct 20, 2020
This is part one of a multi part article on Saint Pope John Paul II. In this article, we'll be focusing in on his early life and in the next we'll discuss more in depth his papacy. Future articles will focus more on his views and writings, as well as his incredible contributions to the canonization of Saints.
Saint John Paul II was born as Karol Jozef Wojtyla in the small Polish town of Wadowice. Born on May 18th, 1920, Karol grew up in the only period of freedom that Poland knew between 1772 and 1989 - the years between Marshal Jozef Pilsudski's defeat of the Soviet army in 1920 and the German invasion of Poland in 1939. The town of Wadowice had about 8,000 Catholics and 2,000 Jews - all of whom got along fine despite rampant anti-Semitism in the world at the time.
Karol's father , also with the first name Karol, was a Lieutenant in the Polish Army. His mother Emilia Kaczorowska was a school teacher but died when he was only eight years old from a heart attack and eventual kidney failure. His older sister Olga died before Karol was born, and his elder brother (13 years his senior) died from scarlet fever only four years after his mother. Both deaths would affect him deeply.
Growing up, he loved soccer and was by all accounts a superb athlete. Under his father's guidance, he lived a disciplined life, excelling in academics, sports and dramatics. He made his first Holy Communion at 9 and was confirmed at 18. After graduating Marcin Wadowita high school in Wadowice as a valedictorian, he moved to Krakow and enrolled at the Jagiellonian University. He studied philology and began to show a talent for language - in his time at university he learned Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, German, Ukrainian, Serbo-Croation, Slovak and Esperanto in addition to his upbringing in Polish. He was required to participate in compulsory military training during this time but refused to fire any weapons.
When the German army invaded Poland, the university was closed and all able-bodied men forced to work to support the German war effort. Nazi officers rounded up members of the Jewish faith and non-Jewish cultural and political leaders. Many professors and priests were arrested during this time and either killed immediately or sent to work in the Concentration Camps (The town in which Saint John Paul II is from is only a few short miles from Auschwitz). From 1940-1944, he was forced to work as a messenger, a laborer in a limestone quarry, and as a worker inside the Solvay chemical factory. This made him the only modern Pope to have been a manual laborer in his life.
He was introduced to the Carmelite mysticism and the Living Rosary youth groups in 1940, but also suffered several injuries during the same year (He suffered a fractured skull from a tram and was hit by a lorry while working in the quarry). In particular he read many of the writings of Saint John of the Cross. He also participated in the Rhapsodic Theater, an underground resistance group that kept Polish culture alive under the occupation.
In 1941, he returned home from work to find that his father had died alone. This death mean Karol was the last of his family alive and he wrote of this time:
"I was not at my mother's death, I was not at my brother's death, I was not at my father's death. At twenty, I had already lost all the people I loved."
In October 1942, he knocked on the Bishop's Palace in Krakow and asked the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow Adam Stefan Sapieha if he could begin studying to become a priest. The Archbishop began teaching the young man secretly in a clandestine seminary. In 1944, a German truck ran into him and he was sent to a hospital to recover from the concussion and shoulder injury. To him, this accident and recovery confirmed to him of his vocation.
On August 6th, 1944, on a day known later as "Black Sunday", the Gestapo rounded up and arrested all young men in the city they could find in an effort to prevent an uprising (The Warsaw uprising had begun on August 1st). Karol hid in his uncle's basement while Nazi soldiers searched the house. After the house was searched, he narrowly escaped through the city streets until he made it to the Bishop's Palace and hid inside disguised as a member of the clergy. More than 8,000 men were arrested.
He is credited during this time of helping several Jews escape the almost certain death by the Nazis. In one case, he helped a 14 year old Jewish refugee named Edith Zierer who had escaped the concentration camp at Czestochowa. Decades later for recognition of the work he performed aiding Jews, he was counted as Righteous Among the Nations.
On January 17th, 1945, the Germans abandoned the city and fled. The students reclaimed the seminary and returned to their studies. After finishing his studies at the Seminary, Karol was ordained a priest by the Archbishop of Krakow. The date of his ordination was November 1st, 1946, All Saints' Day.