Pope John Paul II waves to well-wishers in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in 1978, the year he was elected pope. He will be canonized April 27 with Blessed John XXIII


Pope John Paul II waves to well-wishers in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in 1978, the year he was elected pope. He will be canonized April 27 with Blessed John XXIII

April 14, 2014

Blessed John Paul II, who will be canonized April 27, was one of the most forceful moral leaders of the modern age.

He brought a philosopher's intellect, a pilgrim's spiritual intensity and an actor's flair to his role as head of the universal Church for more than 26 years.

The Polish pope was a tireless evangelizer and forceful communicator, speaking to millions in their own languages. But toward the end of his life, his powers of speech faltered with his worsening illness, which left him often unable to even murmur a blessing.

The first non-Italian pope in 455 years, Blessed John Paul was vigorous and controversial. He disciplined dissenting theologians, excommunicated self-styled "traditionalists," and upheld often unpopular Church positions like its opposition to artificial birth control.

At the same time, he pushed Catholic social teaching into relatively new areas such as bioethics, international economics, racism and ecology.

In his later years, the pope moved with difficulty, tired easily and was less expressive, all symptoms of the nervous system disorder of Parkinson's disease. Yet he pushed himself to the limits of his physical capabilities, convinced that such suffering was itself a form of spiritual leadership.

He led the Church through a heavy program of soul-searching events during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.

He presided over an unprecedented public apology for the sins of Christians during darker chapters of Church history, such as the Inquisition and the Crusades.

His social justice encyclicals made a huge impact, addressing the moral dimensions of human labour, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the shortcomings of the free-market system.

He called for a "new sense of mission'' to bring Gospel values into every area of social and economic life.

The pope also pushed Church positions further into the public forum. In the 1990s he urged the world's bishops to step up their fight against abortion and euthanasia, saying the practices amounted to a modern-day "slaughter of the innocents."

Pope John Paul was a cautious ecumenist, insisting that real differences between religions and churches not be covered up.

Yet he made dramatic gestures, including: launching a Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue in 1979; visiting a Rome synagogue in 1986; hosting world religious leaders at a "prayer summit" for peace in 1986; and traveling to Damascus, Syria, in 2001, where he became the first pontiff to visit a mosque.

To his own flock, he brought continual reminders that prayer and the sacraments were crucial to being a good Christian. He held up Mary as a model of holiness, updated the rosary with five new Mysteries of Light and named more than 450 new saints.


The pope lived a deep spiritual life – something not easily translated by the media. Yet in earlier years, this pope seemed made for modern media. His pontificate has been captured in some lasting images, like huddling in a prison-cell conversation with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, who shot the pope May 13, 1981.

Karol Jozef Wojtyla was born May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, a small town in southern Poland. He lost his mother at age nine, his only brother at age 12 and his father at age 20.

An accomplished actor in Krakow's underground theatre during the war, he changed paths and joined the clandestine seminary after being turned away from a Carmelite monastery with the advice: "You are destined for greater things."

Following studies in Rome, he returned to Poland for parish work in 1948, spending weekends on camping trips with young people.


When named auxiliary bishop of Krakow in 1958 he was Poland's youngest bishop, and he became archbishop of Krakow in 1964. He also came to the attention of the universal Church through his work on important documents of the Second Vatican Council.

Though increasingly respected in Rome, Cardinal Wojtyla was a virtual unknown when elected pope Oct. 16, 1978. In St. Peter's Square that night, he set his papal style in a heartfelt talk – delivered in fluent Italian, interrupted by loud cheers from the crowd.

After more than 26 years as pope, Blessed John Paul died at the age of 84 at the Vatican April 2, 2005, the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, a feast he created to be celebrated the Sunday after Easter.

He will be canonized by Pope Francis on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 27, together with Blessed John XXIII.