John Paul II - Pre-Pontificate Years (1920-1978)

The Early Years in Wadowice

Karol (Charles) Jósef Wojtyła was born in Wadowice (Kraków), Poland on May 18, 1920. His father was also Karol (1879-1941), a lieutenant in the Polish army and son of Maciej and Anna Wojtyła of Lipnik. His mother was Emilia (1884-1929), daughter of Feliks and Anna Kaczorowska of Kraków. He also had an older brother Edmund, born on August 27, 1906, who would go on to become a doctor in Bielsko, and a sister, Olga, who died before he was born. 

Karol was baptized on June 20, 1920 by Fr. Franciszek Zak, a chaplain in the Polish Army. In 1926 he began his elementary schooling, in the midst of which at age 9 his mother died (April 13, 1929), the first of several such crosses he would experience as a child and young man. From 1930 to 1938 he studied at the State Secondary School "Marcin Wadowita" (today called "Emil Zegadlowicz"). Important events of this period include the death of his brother on December 5, 1932, his first theatrical performances, the reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation in May 1938, and he and his father's move to an apartment in Kraków (summer of 1938).

Young Karol Impresses the Archbishop of Krakow

In Pope John Paul II: The Life of Karol Wojtyła, his friend Fr. Mieczyslaw Malinski recounts that it was during this time that he first came to the attention of the Archbishop of Kraków, Adam Cardinal Sapieha. The Cardinal was visiting the school and young Karol was tasked to give the welcoming speech. Impressed by the boy the Cardinal inquired of his pastor whether Karol intended to become a priest. The priest's reply was that his interests seemed to lie with the theatre, an answer which disappointed the archbishop. 

His University Years in Krakow – Meets Jan Tryanowski

When Karol completed his secondary education he enrolled in the Faculty of Philosophy at the historic Jagiellonian University of Kraków in the fall of 1938. Not abandoning the theatre, however, he joined an experimental theatre group known as "Studio 38". The following July the gathering storm clouds of war necessitated military training for the students, including the future Pope. On September 1st, 1939, the German Army invaded Poland. However, the Polish Army was no match for the Nazi forces, so Karol Wojtyła never had the chance to defend his homeland. 

Germany Invades Poland

Young Wojtyła proceeded in the fall of '39 to continue his university studies in philosophy and literature, until the Nazi government closed the university. This forced him in November 1940 to take a job as a stone-cutter at a quarry in Zakrzowek, near Kraków. Earlier that year, in February, he had met a man who would make a profound difference in his spiritual life. Jan Tryanowski was a tailor who was knowledgeable in the spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. He introduced his young protégé to these Carmelite authors, setting him on a deeper spiritual path. 

Studies Interrupted by the Nazi Occupation

A year later, on February 18, 1941, Karol was asked to carry the cross again with the death of his father. From this time he would be alone, though never really so since his spiritual life was deepening under Jan Tryanowski's direction in the ways of prayer. 

The following year, 1942, would see two changes in Karol Wojtyła's life. First he was transferred to the Solvay chemical works, which, as it turned out, would facilitate academic studies at the reopened Jagiellonian University. Thus, in October Karol Wojtyła entered the faculty of theology with the intention of becoming a priest. 

Krakow’s Underground Seminary

This double life or work and study would continue for two years, until August 1944. At that time Cardinal Sapieha moved his seminarians into his episcopal residence to finish their training in an "underground" seminary he conducted there. Karol Wojtyła, who earlier in the year had been hit by a car and hospitalized while saving a man's life, stopped going to work that summer, dropping out of sight of the Nazi occupiers. He continued his priestly studies through the balance of the war, including the liberation (if it can be called that) of Kraków by Soviet forces on January 18, 1945. 

Seminarian Wojtyła's march toward the priesthood included all the stages called for under the Church's discipline before the Second Vatican Council. On September 9, 1944, he was tonsured, in which a circlet of hair was cut off the crown of his head to show that he was now a cleric. On December 17 of that year he received the first two minor orders, porter and lector. The following year on December 12, 1945, he received the two other minor orders, exorcist and acolyte. 

Holy Orders

Finally in 1946 he completed his studies and the reception of orders, with Sub-diaconate on October 13, Diaconate on October 20 and Priesthood on November 1, the Solemnity of All Saints. His priestly ordination was performed by Adam Cardinal Sapieha in his private chapel. The next day he celebrated his first Mass in the crypt of St. Leonard, located in Wawel Castle, Kraków, the royal residence of Poland. 

Studies at the Angelicum in Rome

Fr. Wojtyła left almost immediately for the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome to begin graduate studies. Together with another Polish priest, Fr. Starowieyski, he resided at the Pontifical Belgian College, Via Quiranale 26, near the University. In short order he completed his Licentiate (teaching credentials) in Sacred Theology (STL) on July 3, 1947 and commenced a summer traveling with his Polish confrere to France, Belgium and Holland. Near Charleroi, Belgium, they spent some time doing pastoral work among Polish workers residing there. 

Under the tutelage of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, Fr. Wojtyła began to write the dissertation for the Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) in the fall of 1947. Showing the interest in prayer which Jan Tryanowski had formed in him, he wrote his dissertation in Latin on The Problem of Faith in the Works of St. John of the Cross, successfully defending it with high marks. However, being too poor to pay for its publication, a requirement of the pontifical universities, he returned to Poland without actually receiving the doctorate. 

Fr. Wojtyła Begins Pastoral Work

Back in Krakow, Fr. Karol began to serve as an assistant pastor in Niegowic, near Gdów. During this time he submitted his dissertation to the Jagellonian University, whose faculty reviewed it and in December 1948 granted him the Doctorate in Theology.

The archbishop's plans for young Fr. Wojtyła went beyond being a parish priest. During a period as an assistant at St. Florian's in Kraków, from August 1949 to September 1951, he also served as chaplain to the university students and to health workers. 

From Graduate Student to Professor

On September 1, 1951 Archbishop Baziak (who had replaced Cardinal Sapieha), gave him a sabbatical so that he could qualify, by examination and an “habilitation” dissertation, for a university professorship. This he worked towards during the next two years, completing and then defending a thesis in philosophy on the ethical system of Max Scheler in December 1953. Scheler, like Dietrich von Hildebrand and St. Edith Stein, was a student of Edmund Husserl. He applied a phenomenological method to the study of ethics, an effort which the future Pope found subjective, lacking a metaphysical basis such as Thomistic philosophy provided (see Intellectual History). In the fall of that year he taught the course on Catholic social ethics to the fourth year theology students. 

Unfortunately his career at the Jagiellonian ended with the abolition of the theology faculty the next year ('54), which was then re-organized as part of the archdiocesan seminary. However, Fr. Wojtyła accepted a non-tenured professorship at the Catholic University of Lublin. This "temporary" status would last until December 1, 1956, when he was appointed to the Chair of Ethics. The following year on November 15 he was approved by the University's Central Qualifying Committee as a free docent (lecturer). He would continue to develop his own thought and to teach for the next 20 years, up until his election to a different Chair, that of Peter. 

From Priest to Bishop

On July 1, 1958, Fr. Wojtyła was consecrated a bishop upon being appointed an auxiliary bishop of Kraków (titular bishop of Ombi). While serving in this capacity he continued to teach and to provide pastoral care for university students. These latter contacts lead him to write his first book Love and Responsibility―he had already written many philosophical and theological articles. Having had his advice sought on many occasions about how to handle, morally and practically, relationships between the opposite sexes, Love and Responsibility represented the fruit of his reflection on his pastoral experience. The same year his dissertation on the ethics of phenomenologist Max Scheler was published by the Catholic University of Lublin. 

Bishop, Archbishop, Cardinal and Vatican II

The most momentous event of the 1960s for Bishop Wojtyła was the Second Vatican Council. He attended all of its sessions beginning in October 1962. In July Archbishop Baziak of Kraków had died, but the See of Krakow remained vacant through the beginning of the Council, until after the first session concluded on December 8th. Then, on December 30, 1962, Pope John XXIII chose Bishop Wojtyła to replace Abp. Baziak. However, because of the situation in Poland under Communism, he wasn't able to be officially appointed until January 13, 1964. By then the Pope was Paul VI. Thus, Karol Wojtyła was not formally installed as Archbishop until March 8, 1964. On May 29, 1967, the Pope named him a cardinal, elevating him to that honor on June 28. 

His Conciliar Contribution

During the three year course of the Council, the future Pope actively participated in the debates and in the formulation of the decrees. He was on the drafting commission for the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World “Gaudium et spes,” and also contributed to the Declaration on Religious Liberty “Dignitatis humanae,” and the Decree on the Instruments of Social Communications “Inter mirifica.” Returning to his archdiocese he set about implementing the decrees. One of the fruits this effort was a book about the Council documents and their implementation called Sources of Renewal. Published in 1972, it is the only book on the subject by a bishop who took part in the Second Vatican Council. And, in an unsurprising Providence, he would become the Pope most responsible for its authentic interpretation.

Collegiality: Synods and Bishops Conferences 

Two institutions that came out of the Council were the Synod of Bishops and Conferences of Bishops. The Synod was intended as an exercise of collegiality of all the world's bishops, each national hierarchy sending representatives. The Synod's purpose would be to discuss certain themes (priesthood, laity, penance, family etc.) and provide advice for the Pope to help him govern the universal Church. It meets in ordinary and extraordinary sessions. Conferences of Bishops, too, were meant to be collegial institutions, but of the bishops in a particular country or region toward their own people.

Cardinal Wojtyła participated in both these new institutions, serving as Vice-President of the Polish Bishops Conference upon his election in March 1969, and in the Synods of Bishops in several capacities. Foregoing the First Ordinary Assembly of a Synod (October 1967, On the Strengthening of the Catholic Faith), in order to protest the denial of an exit visa to Cardinal Stefan Wyszinski of Warsaw, he attended the First Extraordinary Session in October 1969, on the collegial relations between the Pope and the bishops, as a papally nominated member. This was followed by participation in the Second Ordinary Assembly (Oct./Nov. 1971) on the priesthood and justice as an ordinary member (at which he was elected to the Council of the Secretary General of the Synod), the Third Ordinary Assembly (October 1974) on evangelization as a relator (moderator) in the doctrinal section, and the Fourth Ordinary Assembly (October 1977) on catechetics as a member (and was again elected to the Council of the Secretary General). His collegial spirit was not limited to the universal Church, however. As archbishop he convoked a Synod of Kraków (May 1972, May 1975). The next Synod of Bishops (October 1980) he would attend, on the family, would be called by him as Pope. 

Publication of “The Acting Person”

As already noted, during his years as bishop Karol Wojtyła continued to teach and to write. In 1969 he completed and published his principle academic work The Acting Person (called Person and Act in one edition). In this book he explains the philosophical approach to understanding the person and ethics which he had developed, using the phenomenological method of contemporary personalism (which count St. Edith Stein and Dietrich von Hildebrand among its advocates), together with the metaphysical and anthropological teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. (see The Thought of Pope John Paul II for further explanation) This philosophical approach, together with the equivalent theological approach (namely, that the Person of Christ, the God-Man, must be in the center of theological reflection) would latter characterize his papal teaching. It also is the key to an authentic understanding of the personalism of the Second Vatican Council. 

Cardinal Wojtyła's personal ties to the papacy continued to deepen in the mid-1970s. In March 1976 he gave the Lenten retreat to Pope Paul VI. This is considered a great sign of papal esteem. The talks he delivered are published under the title A Sign of Contradiction (cf. Luke 2:34). In July 1976 he was sent by the Pope as his representative to the International Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia, on the occasion of the U.S. Bicentennial in July 1976. Finally on August 25 and 26, 1978, he participated in the Conclave which elected Cardinal Albino Luciani of Venice as Pope, taking the name John Paul, to honor his two predecessors. It would be the one and only Conclave he would both enter and leave as a Cardinal.