POPE ST. JOHN PAUL II (1920–2005), Pope from 1978. Karol Wojtyla, the son of a Polish soldier, was born in the industrial town of Wadowice, not far from Cracow. His family was poor. In 1938 he entered the Jagiellonian University at Cracow. During the German occupation of Poland he worked in a quarry and then in a chemical factory. Recognizing a vocation to the priesthood in 1942, he began studying theology; he completed his studies at the seminary in Cracow after the end of the Second World War and was ordained in 1946. He then went to the Angelicum (the Dominican University) in Rome. On his return to Cracow he served as a parish priest and university chaplain, and lectured on ethics and moral theology. Under a pseudonym he published plays and poetry. In 1958 Pius XII nominated him titular Bp. of Ombi and auxiliary to the Administrator Apostolic of Cracow; in 1964 Paul VI appointed him Abp. of Cracow and in 1967 made him a cardinal. When the Second Vatican Council was announced, he became a member of the Preparatory Commission and he attended all four Sessions of the Council. He also served on various post-Conciliar Commissions and from 1971 was a permanent member of the Council of the Roman Synod of Bishops. He became known in the West through his lectures in America and elsewhere, assisted by his outstanding linguistic skill. Together with Cardinal Wyszinski, the Primate, he was a leading figure in the Church’s struggle against the Communist Government in Poland.
When he was elected Pope on the death of John Paul I in 1978, he was the first Slav to hold that office and the first non-Italian since Hadrian VI (1522–3). He began his pontificate with a simple ceremony of inauguration. Early in 1979 he went to Mexico to open the Latin American Bishops’ Conference at Puebla. On that occasion he set the pattern for his later foreign visits, kissing the ground of the country and celebrating Mass in front of vast crowds. Later in 1979 he visited Poland (where dramatic scenes of welcome were tolerated by the Government), Ireland, the United States of America, and Turkey. An attempt to assassinate him in Rome on 13 May 1981 did not for long delay further travel. In 1982 he was the first Pope to visit Britain and he subsequently visited over 100 countries in Europe, Africa, N. and S. America, and Asia.
In Mexico at the beginning of his pontificate John Paul II appeared cautious in his approach to Liberation Theology and insisted that politics was the business of the laity. While he continued to condemn the use of violence, his commitment to the pursuit of human rights and human dignity was made clear in his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis (1979), which called for a reordering of social and economic structures; it was reiterated in Dives in misericordia (1980), Laborem exercens (1981), and Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987), the first encyclical addressed to non-RCs. His encyclical Slavorum apostoli (1985) appealed to a religion and culture common to both E. and W. Europe as a source for ending divisions in that continent. He is credited with a crucial role in the collapse of Communism which spread from Poland. On 1 Dec. 1989 he received Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the USSR, at the Vatican, and later in that month the Uniate Church was restored in the Soviet Union. The Pope warned the E. not to capitulate to the materialism of the W. and was again critical of Capitalism as well as Communism in Centesimus Annus (1991), the encyclical marking the centenary of Rerum Novarum. At Epiphany 1991 he launched a ‘Decade of Evangelization’, adopted in other Churches as a ‘Decade of Evangelism’.
The whole pontificate was marked by a concern for orthodoxy. John Paul II consistently declined to make any concessions in the Church’s attitude to such issues as contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. The traditional teaching on these matters, as well as on the dangers of admitting relativist interpretations of doctrine, was notably upheld in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993). In 1982 he designated the conservative Opus Dei as the first personal prelature. In the Church’s spiritual life he stressed the importance of traditional discipline, the Eucharist, and the place of the BVM. He performed an unprecedentedly large number of beatifications and canonizations, including the beatification of Duns Scotus (1993). In 1985 he convened a second Extraordinary Synod of Bishops to assess the impact of the Second Vatican Council and to prevent divergent interpretations of it. The Synod suggested a universal Catechism of the Catholic Church which was issued in 1997. During his pontificate the teaching of various theologians was held suspect and in 1979 H. Küng had his licence to teach as a Catholic theologian withdrawn. Ten years later a new profession of faith and oath of fidelity was introduced for Church officials and the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith issued an Instruction on the vocation of theologians dealing with the relationship of the theologian to the teaching authority of the Church. At the other end of the spectrum the traditionalist Abp. M. Lefebvre, who refused to accept the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council, in June 1988 led his followers into schism when he consecrated four bishops without the Pope’s approval.
Visiting the World Council of Churches in June 1984, John Paul II spoke of the ecumenical movement as irreversible, though he rejected intercommunion as a means for attaining unity of faith. He especially promoted good relations with the Orthodox. For the first time in modern history the Pope and the Oecumenical Patriarch attended each other’s liturgies in Istanbul in 1979 and issued a call for dialogue leading to full communion. The re-emergence of Catholicism in E. Europe in the late 1980s led, however, to new disputes concerning Church property and RC proselytization in traditionally Orthodox regions. Despite the Pope’s prayer with Abp. R. Runcie at Canterbury in 1982, relations with the C of E also suffered setbacks. While the 1991 Vatican response to the Final Report of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission called for further clarification on various issues, the Pope had written to the Abp. of Canterbury in 1986 warning of the danger to reunion of the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Anglican Communion. A ‘Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism’, issued in 1993, encouraged, but defined current limits to, Roman Catholic participation in ecumenical activity. John Paul II also sought good relations with other world religions, esp. Islam and Judaism. On 13 Apr. 1986 he joined the Chief Rabbi at prayer in a Roman synagogue, and on 16 Oct. 1986 he led the representatives of 12 world religions in a day of prayer for peace at Assisi. In 1993 the Vatican formally recognized the State of Israel.
John Paul II reorganized the Curia by his Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus (1988), confirming new regulations in 1992, and he continued to internationalize both the Curia and the Cardinals. He promulgated the new Codex Iuris Canonici in 1983 and the first ever Codex for the Uniat Churches in 1990. In 1984 he concluded a revision of the Lateran Treaty, conceding separation of Church and State in Italy and allowing that Rome should no longer be regarded as a ‘sacred city’. Full diplomatic relations were established with Britain in 1982, with the USA in 1984, and with Mexico in 1992.
There are Eng. trs. of his Collected Poems (1982) and of his best-known play, The Jeweller’s Shop (1980). Official docs. are pr. in the AAS for the years of his pontificate. The many studies incl. T. Szulc, Pope John Paul II: The Biography (New York and London ); J. Kwitty, Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II (1997); G. Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999). J. Luxmoore and J. Babiuch, The Vatican and the Red Flag: The Struggle for the Soul of Eastern Europe (1999). G. Weigel in NCE (2nd edn.), 7 (2003), pp. 992–1006, s.v.
Adapted from an article in The Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church. ed. E.A. Livingstone, (Oxford, 1996).
This Webpage was created for a workshop held at Saint Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, California in 2003