Remembering Pope Saint John Paul II

John Paul II during his last stay in Poland Adam Hawałej / PAP

Poles and Catholics around the world will today commemorate the 98th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s birth, a man instrumental to the collapse of communism in Poland and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, and the establishment of a more progressive Catholic Church.

Born Karol Wojtyła in 1920, he grew up in Wadowice during the only period of independence in modern-day Poland, prior to 1989. As a child, he counted both Polish and Jewish children among his friends – something that would greatly influence his later activities.

Against a backdrop of Nazi atrocities, he settled in Kraków where he secretly studied for the priesthood and was ordained on November 1, 1946. 

Known for his progressiveness, he was unexpectedly elected Archbishop of Kraków in 1964 during the Second Vatican Council – the congress which would set up a reformist agenda for the Catholic Church.

On the back of this progressive theology, he was elected Pope in 1978 – the first non-Italian Pope in 450 years and the first Slav. As Pope, he became one of the most travelled world leaders in history, visiting 129 countries during his 40 year pontificate.

Fundamental to John Paul II’s papacy was a more integral and respectful alliance between the Abrahamic religions – in his view, Jews, Muslims and Christians needed to establish a more respectful dialogue. He is widely regarded to have succeeded in his mission, building much stronger ties between religious leaders and communities.

Poland’s national integrity and political sovereignty, however, remained crucial to him. Stridently anti-communist, he advised the Solidarity movement on non-violent actions in the 1980s – his efforts contributing to the peaceful collapse of communism.

John Paul II died in 2005, at the age of 84. His cause for canonisation started immediately after his death as crowds at his funeral called for Sancto Subito – and was expedited under exceptional circumstances. In 2014, nine years after his death, he was canonised, becoming Saint John Paul II.