Today In History: Pope John Paul II Is Born

Real History |

Today in 1920, the man who would come to be known as Pope John Paul II was born in the Polish town of Wadowice. His birth name was Karol Jozef Wojtyla, and he would become the first non-Italian Pope since the 1500's.

Upon graduating high school, Wojtyla became a student at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. He studied literature and philosophy, and also performed with a student theater troupe. Jagiellonian was shuttered during World War II, during the Nazi occupation. Wojtyla found work in a quarry and then a chemical factory. By 1941, he was the only surviving member of the Wojtyla family.

He was a lifelong churchgoer, but didn't start formal seminary training until 1942. He enrolled in the theology program at Jagiellonian after it was re-opened. In 1946, he was ordained as a priest. He later completed two doctorate degrees and worked as a professor of social ethics and moral theology.

When he was 38, Wojtyla was given the position as auxiliary bishop of Krakow by Pope Pius XII. He later accepted the position as Krakow's archbishop. During the Second Vatican Council, he campaigned on behalf of religious freedom.

In 1967, he became a cardinal in Eastern Europe. When asked if he was afraid of punitive treatment by the Communist party, he said, "I'm not afraid of them. They are afraid of me."

Tom Perna

Despite his renown as a gifted preacher and intellectual, Wojtyla was a dark horse candidate for the papacy after Pope John Paul I's death in 1978. 58 at the time, Wojtyla was selected by the Sacred College of Cardinals to become the new Pope. He was the youngest Pope in 132 years.

John Paul II's papacy was conservative in tone. He was a staunch opponent of Communism and also opposed capital punishment, abortion, contraception and homosexuality. In later years, he also took a stand against human cloning, stem cell research and euthanasia.

He was known as a charming man. He was also a polyglot, conversational in eight languages. He traveled extensively.

John Paul II suffered two assassination attempts. The first was on May 13, 1981, when he was shot by a Turkish radical named Mehmet Ali Agca in St. Peter's Square. The Pope, upon release from the hospital, visited Agca in the first days of his life sentence to forgive him. A year later, a priest attempted to kill John Paul II for the reforms of Vatican II.

Despite the Vatican's attempts to keep it secret, the public began to suspect that the Pope was suffering from Parkinson's disease, beginning in the early 90's. His speech was slurred, and he appeared to have trouble walking. The Vatican confirmed the rumors in 2003.

Parkinson's forced the Pope to delegate much of his job to others, but still appeared for public speeches. He was hospitalized in 2005 for the flu, and died two months later.

Pope John Paul II is best remembered as an anti-Communist. He was also an effective ambassador to other faiths, and controversially issued an official apology for the Catholic Church's complicity in World War II atrocities.

John Paul II was succeeded by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who was named Pope Benedict XVI. He initiated the beatification process for John Paul II in May of 2005.

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