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Pope John Paul II
John Paul II was the 264th pope. At his death he was 84 years, 10 months and 15 days old. His pontificate lasted for 26 years, 5 months and 17 days. An average duration of pontificate of previous popes was estimated to be approx. 7 and a half years. Statistically speaking, the Pope from Poland covered four pontificates. It was the case despite the criminal attack of May 13, 1981 aimed to assassinate the Pope.
John Paul II (Karol Wojtyła) was born on May 18, 1920 in Wadowice. Two days later, he was baptised in a local Parish Church of the Virgin Mary by the priest Franciszek Żak. Being the Pope, he visited his family town three times: on June 7, 1979 during his first pilgrimage, on August 14, 1991 during his fourth pilgrimage and on June 16, 1999 during his seventh pilgrimage to his native country. Each time he spent a long time praying at the Baptistery and during his last visit he would say: "With profound veneration I also embrace the threshold of the house of God, the parish church of Wadowice, and in it the Baptistery, in which I was joined to Christ and received into the community of his Church. In this church I made my first Confession and received my First Holy Communion. Here I was an altar boy."
After he had broken his philological studies due to the outbreak of World War II and closing the Jagiellonian University by the Nazi occupants, Karol Wojtyła worked in a quarry and then in the Solvay chemical factory as a manual worker. In 1942, he entered the clandestine seminary and on November 1, 1946 he was ordained. He was sent to Rome where he obtained a doctorate in theology. After he had come back to Poland in 1948, he performed various priestly duties and held academic lectures. In 1958, he was appointed the Auxiliary Bishop of Kraków and in 1964 the Archbishop of Kraków. He took an active part in the II Vatican Council (1962-1965). In 1967, he was elevated to the honour of a cardinal. In 1978 known as "the year of three popes," after the death of John Paul I, Wojtyła was elected the Pope by the conclave of cardinals on October 16. On Sunday, October 22, the Pope held a ceremony to inaugurate his service as St Peter's Successor and uttered his famous words "Be not afraid" commonly perceived and contemplated as the motto of his unusually intense teaching and activity.
The accomplishments of the pontificate of John Paul II are impressive. He continued and developed the achievements of his great predecessors whose names he had taken - that of John XXIII (1958-1963), Paul VI (1963-1978) and prematurely dead John Paul I (1978). He made 104 foreign pastoral trips and visited 129 countries on all continents, made 144 journeys in Italy, paid 784 visits to the Rome diocese and also to Rome and Castel Gandolfo. Making the journeys around the world and in Italy, the Pope travelled in total approx. 1,271,000 km, which corresponds to 31 trips around the globe. He issued 14 encyclicals, 15 adhortations, 11 constitutions, 45 apostolic letters and 30 motu proprio, i.e. official letters to the Church in general, a part thereof or defined persons. He delivered 3,228 speeches to countless crowds of people that gathered not only where the Pope arrived but also watched him on TV or listened to on the radio. He convened 15 assemblies of the Synode of Bishops, established a number of new dioceses and church territorial units. He carried out 1,338 beatifications and 482 canonisations; i.e. more than a half of canonisations held over the past four centuries. He initiated the World Youth Days and drew millions of youths from all over the world. During the audiences held each week on Wednesday and Sunday, he took part in a great number of meetings with the faithful. On numerous occasions he would also talk to state and religious officials. He made a great contribution to the development of ecumenism; i.e. the activities undertaken to bring the Christians of different denominations closer and to maintain a dialog with the representatives of other religions. A particular attention should be paid to his contribution to a dialogue with the Jews and Judaism - the progress of the dialogue witnessed in the past 25 years was unprecedented. He published the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a number of books in which he described his great passion for Poland and its native tradition. Owing to his efforts, the walls marking old political division in Europe and the world collapsed and other walls and barriers began to crumble. Consequently, millions of people regained and strengthened their personal and social dignity. He proclaimed the Year of Redemption (1983-84) and the Year of St Mary (1987-1988). He prepared the Church and the world to celebrate the Great Jubilee of 2000 and ushered the Christians and humanity to the 21st century and the third millennium. He proclaimed the Year of Eucharist (2004-05) a few months before he died.
The painful effects of the 1981 attack had an impact on the Holy Father's health. The last months of his life proved particularly painful and dramatic. The whole world admired the Pope from Poland as he was struggling against his gradually weakening body in the Gemelli Clinic and Vatican but nonetheless managed to still strengthen his courageous spirit. Millions of people remember the blessing "Urbi et Orbi" given by the Pope from the window of the Apostolic Palace during the last Easter of his earthly living. John Paul II set a heroic example of Christian suffering and the ability to accept it. His persistent courage manifested in his old age and illness, the process of dying and his death seems to confirm his repeated calling to the world for dignified living and respect for it. He will be remembered as the Good Shepherd whose life and teaching brought many people closer to God, ready - as Jesus Christ in whom he put unlimited trust - "to give his life for the sheep."
The death and funeral of the Holy Father launched and reinforced great spiritual potential. It became apparent in Rome and the whole world, in particular in Poland, the native country of John Paul II. He has already "crossed the threshold of hope" and found himself in the arm of the Mother in whom he put his trust saying "Totus Tuus." He whispered "Amen" just before he died.
Thank you, the Holy Father! Rest in peace!
The Rev. Prof. Waldemar CHROSTOWSKI
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw