Pope John Paul II life and biography

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Pope John Paul II biography

Date of birth : 1920-05-18
Date of death : 2005-04-02
Birthplace : Wadowice, Poland
Nationality : Polish
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2010-07-14
Credited as : Supreme Pontiff of The Catholic Church, ,

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The Venerable Pope John Paul II ( born Karol Józef Wojtyła 18 May 1920 – died 2 April 2005) served as Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church and Sovereign of Vatican City from 16 October 1978 until his death over 26 years later. His was the second-longest documented pontificate; only Pope Pius IX served longer (St Peter the Apostle is reputed to have served for more than thirty years as the first pontiff, but documentation is too sparse to definitively support this). He has been the only Polish Pope to date, and was the first non-Italian Pope since Dutch Pope Adrian VI in 1522.

John Paul II has been acclaimed as one of the most influential leaders of the twentieth century. It is widely held that he was instrumental in ending Communism in his native Poland and eventually all of Europe as well as significantly improving the Catholic Church's relations with Judaism, Islam, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Anglican Communion. Though criticised for his opposition to contraception and the ordination of women, as well as his support for the Second Vatican Council and its reform of the Liturgy, he has also been praised for his firm, orthodox Catholic stances in these areas.

Vatican City

The official name of the Vatican, or Vatican City as it is interchangeably called, is Lo Stato de la Citta del Vaticano (State of the Vatican City). It is not a country, but rather an independent city-state and is the smallest state in the world. It is somewhat triangularly shaped and covers an area of 0.44 sq km (0.17 sq. mi.) lying entirely within the city of Rome near the west bank of the Tiber River and west of the Castel Sant'Angelo. To the west and south it is bounded by the Leonine Wall. The Vatican is famous for its gardens which contain fine collections of orchids and many exotic flora. In July 2001, the population of the Vatican was 890 with a growth rate of 1.15%. The Vatican units of currency are the Vatican lira (plural - lire) and the euro. The Vatican lira is at par with the Italian lira. In January 2001 the exchange rate stood at 1.0659 euros to the U.S. dollar. (The Vatican is scheduled to start using euros at a fixed rate of 1936.17 euros to the lira in 2002.) Italian is the official language of the Vatican; however, Latin is the official language of the Holy See (the seat of jurisdiction of the pope as spiritual leader) and is used for most formal papal acts and addresses. Although the citizens within the Vatican represents countries from all over the world, most of the inhabitants of the Vatican are Italian. The entrances to the Vatican City are guarded by Swiss Papal Guards. The Vatican City is the center of the Roman Catholic Church and the seat of its holy leader, the pope. The Vatican economy is supported by contributions, known within the Catholic Church as Peter's pence, and tourism. The only industries of the Vatican produce a limited amount of mosaics, religious publications, and staff uniforms. The Vatican is active worldwide in banking and financial activities. Other than postage stamps, the Vatican produces no exports.

Political Background

The Vatican City is the physical seat of the Holy See which is the central government of the Roman Catholic Church. For many centuries, the popes of the Roman Catholic Church held sovereignty over a wide band of territory across central Italy. However, in 1861 these Papal States fell under the control of the Kingdom of Sardinia. The pope's sovereignty was limited to Rome and its surrounding areas. In 1870 even Rome itself was forcibly incorporated into the new Kingdom of Italy. In 1871 the Italian Parliament passed the Law of Guarantees which secured the pope's spiritual freedom, an income, and special status for the Vatican area. Unwilling to accept this arrangement, however, the popes remained as self-imposed prisoners in the Vatican until a more permanent political and financial agreement, the Lateran Treaty, was signed with the Italian government in 1929. A new concordat was signed in 1984 that further specified church-state relations between the Holy See and Italy.

A constitution published at the time the Lateran Treaty went into effect provided for the pope to exercise supreme legislative, executive and judicial power within the Vatican City. However, the pope delegates internal administration to the Pontifical Commission for the State of the Vatican City, which is assisted by the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic City. The Pontifical Commission consists of seven cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church and a lay special delegate, with the assistance of a board of 21 lay advisors. The principal government officials other than the pope are the secretary of state and the secretary of the Sacred Council for Public Affairs.

Following the death of a reigning pope, the College of Cardinals is called into conclave to choose a successor from their number. The cardinal who receives two-thirds of the vote is elected pope for life. There are no political parties and no local government. Much of the government's work is devoted to the needs of the Catholic Church and is conducted by offices called Sacred Councils. Each office is headed by a cardinal who holds his position for five years. Thus the Vatican can be characterized as a monarchical-sacerdotal state.

The Vatican issues its own currency, stamps and passports. Defense is the responsibility of Italy, but internal security is maintained by a contingent of the Swiss Guard and a civilian security corps. Judicial authority for criminal cases resides in the Vatican Courts. For ordinary legal matters, which typically involve religious cases, there are tribunals inside the Vatican to decide issues. Appeals can be made to the Roman Rota or, in exceptional cases, to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signature.

Personal Background

Pope John Paul II was born Karol Jozef Wojtyla (pronounced "voy-TEE-wah") in Wadowice, Poland on May 18, 1920. He was the second of two children born to a strict Catholic family. His mother Emilia (Kaczorowska) Wojtyla, who was of Lithuanian descent, died when he was only nine. His brother Edmund, who was much older than Karol, died four years later. His father, Karol Wojtyla, Sr. was a pensioned army sergeant and died in 1942.

In school, the young Karol Wojtyla excelled in sports, dramatics and academic subjects. He enrolled in the field of literature at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland in 1938. There he acted with an amateur theatrical troupe and participated in poetry readings and literary discussions. He began his seminary studies in secret while earning a living as a manual laborer in a quarry and a chemical factory during Poland's occupation by the Nazis in World War II.

Wojtyla was ordained in Krakow in 1946, after which he worked in France as pastor to French working-class youth and Polish refugees. He then went on to further his studies at the Pontifical Angelicum University in Rome. After graduating, he returned to Poland to serve a parish for some years and then went on to become a professor of ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin.

"Pilgrim Pope" John Paul II, as he is affectionately called, is an enormously popular pope. Besides being an accomplished philosopher and well-versed in Marxist theory, he has also written books and treatises dealing with religion as well as literary poems and plays. He has recorded an album of religious hymns; and he enjoys staying physically fit through both swimming and jogging. His outgoing nature has attracted millions. And he is on record as having celebrated the largest Mass ever when 1.2 million people attended his Mass in Dublin, Ireland on September 30, 1979. His weekly audiences, or public appearances, at the Vatican City attract such huge crowds that the meetings have had to be moved from St. Peter's Church to the square outside. During one such appearance there in May of 1981, he was shot and seriously wounded by Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish terrorist. Pope John Paul II completely recovered from the attack.

In addition to his native Polish, the pope speaks fluent Italian and flawless Latin. He is also quite versant in English, French, German and Spanish. He is the first non-Italian pope since the year 1522 and the first Slavic pope ever.

Rise to Power

In 1958, Wojtyla was consecrated auxiliary bishop of Krakow, Poland under Archbishop Eugeniusz Baziak. Four years later the archbishop died; and Bishop Wojtyla was named vicar capitular and placed in charge of the archdiocese of Krakow. In 1964, he was officially appointed archbishop of Krakow. From 1962 to 1965, Wojtyla addressed the Vatican Council II on several occasions concerning important doctrines of the Catholic Church. In 1967, the then Pope Paul VI elevated Wojtyla to a cardinal. During his cardinalate, Cardinal Wojtyla began to make the first of his many future international journeys, including a trip in 1969 and one in 1976 to the U.S.

With the deaths of Pope Paul VI in August 1978 and Pope John Paul I in September of 1978, a secret conclave in the Vatican was called by the College of Cardinals to elect the 263rd successor to St. Peter as bishop of Rome. Cardinal Wojtyla was elected in October 1978, at which time he chose the new name John Paul II. With tears in his eyes he accepted. The new pope made his first public appearance shortly afterwards from the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square in which he announced to the gathered crowd. "I was afraid to receive this nomination, but I did it in the spirit of obedience to Our Lord and in the total confidence in his mother, the most holy Madonna." Humility and professed obedience to God have characterized his papacy. Like his predecessor, John Paul I, he declined coronation and one month later was installed as pope in a simple Mass in St. Peter's Square on October 22, 1978.


As the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope has an international constituency. However, given the ever greater complexity of society, religious authorities can no longer assume that believers will automatically accept all, or perhaps even most, of the tenets of their religion. This is especially true when church dogma conflicts with personal beliefs, an especially common phenomenon today in industrialized countries. John Paul II has addressed this issue directly by reinforcing church teachings through numerous public addresses and visits to foreign countries. The pope has traveled widely since assuming his title, visiting many Third World countries and speaking out for greater reliance on spiritual faith and condemning what he sees as an overemphasis on material goods. In this regard, he is considered a conservative on Catholic doctrine. He condemns the use of artificial forms of contraception, denies the right of priests to actively participate in the political and economic affairs of their host countries, and is against allowing women into the priesthood. At the same time though, the pope has spoken forcefully for the need to respect human rights and the need for the world community to act with greater unity. The pope has also urged greater toleration among the various world religions, especially among differing Christian faiths.

In 2001 John Paul II, who would soon turn 81, showed visible signs of Parkinson's disease. Although the Vatican denied that he suffered from the disease, one of his doctors publicly confirmed the diagnosis. By then, John Paul II had beatified 1,235 people and elevated 477 people to sainthood, nearly equal to the total number from all previous popes during the past 400 years.

Domestic Policy

Since the pope is the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, domestic policy of the Vatican City is primarily devoted to the health, maintenance and augmentation of the church worldwide. The Vatican City labor force consists mainly of priests and other ecclesiastics who naturally accept the leading role of the pope. Adult literacy is close to 100% and about 65 papal educational institutions are located throughout Rome. One of the major responsibilities of the Vatican is to be the voice of the Catholic Church for its members. To that end, the Vatican publishes a newspaper and magazine devoted to Catholic affairs and prints official church documents that are communicated throughout the world.

John Paul II has made himself and his papacy part of the global scene through worldwide traveling, a papal first. These journeys are used to show the universal character of the Roman Catholic Church and to personally deliver the pope's message to all interested peoples. This universality of the church, combined with a call for greater religious toleration, has long been a personal doctrine for the pope. At the Vatican Council II (1962-1965), the future Pope John Paul II pointed out that the church could not claim religious liberty for itself without conceding it to others.

The Vatican, however, has not been free from controversy. A financial scandal involving the Vatican Bank, which occurred in the early 1980s, led to reforms and greater monitoring by the pope in the economic affairs of the state.

Foreign Policy

Many nations today recognize the State of the Vatican City as an independent sovereign state under the temporal jurisdiction of the pope. The Vatican also has permanent observer status in the UN. Until recently, the Vatican had uneven relations with the communist nations of Eastern Europe and the USSR. With the dramatic political and social changes now taking place within these countries, relations between the Roman Catholic Church and these governments have markedly improved. However relations with other communist or socialist countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America remain somewhat tense. The major principles behind the Vatican's foreign policy are neutrality and the demand for greater international cooperation.

From 1870 to 1984, the U.S. had no formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See, although several recent presidents did designate personal envoys to visit the Vatican and discuss political issues. On January 10, 1984, President Reagan established full diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

June 2003: The pope says he will not eliminate the requirement of celibacy for priests, in spite of recruitment problems and recent sex scandals.

July 21, 2003: The pope, lobbying for a reference to Christianity in the EU constitution, calls Christianity "the religion of Europeans."

August 2003: In a call for the European Union to recognize its Christian roots, the pope said, "The Christian faith gave [Europe] form, and some of its fundamental values later inspired the democratic ideal and human rights of modern Europe."

September 11, 2003: The pope faltered while delivering opening remarks at an airport in Slovakia. An aide took the text from him and gave it to another Vatican official to read.

September 15, 2003: The pope accepted the resignation of Philippine Cardinal Jaime L. Sin, who had reached the age of 75. Source: Manila Bulletin, September 16, 2003.

October 3, 2003: Vienna Archbishop Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn said the pope was nearing the last days and months of his life. Source: Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Australia), October 4, 2003, p. 1.

October 5, 2003: The pope told the Archbishop of Canterbury that serious differences had arisen on the path to unity in the Christian faith, referring to the Anglican Church's position on homosexuality.

October 16, 2003: The pope marked his twenty-fifth year as pontiff, becoming only the third pope to achieve the milestone.

October 2003: Pope John Paul announced that he intends to stay on as leader of the Roman Catholic Church "as long as God wants."

December 17, 2003: Pope John Paul II viewed Mel Gibson's controversial film The Passion of Christ, and is said to have enjoyed it.

January 1, 2004: In a New Year Day's address, the pope said "More than ever we need a new international order which draws on the experience and results of the UN."

February 6, 2004: The Pope told an audience at the Vatican that church legal proceedings against priests who commit sexual offenses should reflect the "just principle of proportionality between guilt and punishment."

June 4, 2004: Pope John Paul II received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest United States honor for a civilian, from United States President George W. Bush.

August 15, 2004: Pope John Paul II celebrated an open-air Mass for several hundred thousand pilgrims in Lourdes, France, near the famous French shrine.

February 24, 2005:
Pope John Paul underwent a successful tracheotomy to ease his breathing hours after he was hospitalized with a recurrence of the flu, a Vatican representative said.

April 2, 2005: John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, at the Vatican. He was 84.

April 4, 2005: Following Pope John Paul II's death on April 2, 2005, sales of his books soared. Among those that entered the Top 20 on Amazon were The Way to Christ, Memory and Identity, Pope John Paul: In My Own Words, and Crossing the Threshold of Hope. HarperCollins announced plans to publish a book about the pope's death and legacy by biographer George Weigel before the end of the year.

May 13, 2005: John Paul is being placed on the fast track to possible Roman Catholic sainthood, said his successor, Pope Benedict XVI.

February 23, 2008: A statue was unveiled by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone in Santa Clara, Cuba, commemorating John Paul's trip to that country in 1998. .

December 19, 2009: John Paul is within two steps of sainthood after a decree from Pope Benedict XVI.


Addresses: Office: Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, Vatican City, Vatican.

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