The Extraordinary and Inspiring Life of St. John Paul II

Anne Stricherz

The Extraordinary and Inspiring Life of St. John Paul II

Even before he was canonized, many people referred to the man who was the first Pope from Poland as St John Paul the Great. According to "Who Were the "Great" Popes – and Why?", “only three Popes have had 'the Great' appended to their names: Pope St. Leo I (reigned 440–61), Pope St. Gregory I (590–604), and Pope St. Nicholas I (858–67). However, the Church has never officially pronounced these Popes as "great"; rather, they have been identified as great both by popular acclamation at the time of their deaths and by history itself.” Considering the legacy that St. John Paul II left, it’s easy to understand how he too informally earned this moniker.

Born Karol Józef Wojtyla on April 18, 1920 in the Polish town of Wadowice, the late Pontiff was great in his ministry, his writing, his leadership, his vision for the Church, his holiness, his devotion to the Eucharist and Our Lady. The most traveled Pope in history, St. John Paul II was influential in the fall of Communism in the late 80’s and early 90’s and radically influential in areas of human rights, political freedom and more. Poet, playwright, actor, theologian, outdoorsman, St. John Paul II spoke 19 languages. His ability to meet the faithful in their own communities and churches and his ability to dialogue with them in their own language reemphasized that the word catholic means “universal.” He extended the Holy See far and beyond the walls of the Vatican to small towns, tiny villages and bustling cities throughout the globe. This blog post will examine the far from ordinary life of an extraordinary Saint, a man who may one day be officially known as “St. John Paul the Great.”

His Ministry

Ask American Catholics where St. John Paul II traveled in his first Papal visit to the United States and a likely response will say, New York, Philadelphia, or Washington, D.C. That is correct, and yet there was one additional stop on that historic visit that was both unlikely but important: Des Moines, Iowa.

As written in "Iowans Remember Pope John Paul II’s 1979 Visit," "Joe Hays, 69, a farmer from Truro, brought the Pope to Iowa with a handwritten request. After learning of John Paul II’s visit to America, he wrote to the Pope and said that the strength of the Catholic Church in America is found in its rural people. A month later, a response arrived and Hays was called to an August 29 news conference announcing the visit."

Somewhere along the way of earning a Bachelor of Arts in American Studies, I learned that if you want to truly know a nation and its people, don't judge the country by its coastal communities. You must go to the heartland—and Pope John Paul II did.

In the country's agricultural center, the Holy Father offered mass on an altar crafted by local millworkers out of 100-year-old barn wood, decorated with a banner made by volunteers from a local quilting bee. Thirty-seven years ago, he spoke under the open Midwestern sky to the largest crowd in the history of Iowa.

Many Catholics are familiar with the responsorial psalm, “All the ends of the earth have seen the power of God.” Perhaps those words are what drove Pope John Paul II to visit the faithful far and wide. In meeting the people in both rural and urban centers, in countries where he spoke the language and others where he did not, the Holy Father served not only as a great shepherd, but a witness.

His First Words as the Holy Father

Karol Wojtyla, the Archbishop of Kraków was appointed to serve as the Bishop of Rome on October 16, 1978. Taking the name Pope John Paul II, the Holy Father’s first words were "Be Not Afraid." I was reminded of his message this past Easter when the pastor at my parish shared the first words of not only St. John Paul II, but of the Risen Lord as well. Jesus appeared to His disciples in the locked room and said, "Peace Be with you." The Easter homily invited the congregation to pray with and think about the relationship between those two commands.

JPII was able to give this message—one that is echoed throughout all of scripture—because he lived with the Peace that only Christ can give.

As many people know, on May 13, 1981 Mehmet Ali Agca tried to assassinate John Paul II "as the pope rode in an open car in St Peter's Square. The pontiff was hit in the abdomen, left hand and right arm, but the bullets missed vital organs." The Pope met Agca in Italy's Rebibbia prison in 1983 and forgave him for the shooting. Truly, the Holy Father modeled for us the importance of forgiveness and the theological virtue of love, which enables us to do so. What many of us don't know however, is the extent to which the Polish Saint preached and practiced the first three words of his papacy.

It would have been very easy for St. John Paul II to withdraw from the world and play it safe. He could have easily limited his travel and focused his efforts on writing and the ever demanding duties of administration. Instead, the Holy Father embraced a missionary spirit that drew him to places like Zaire, the Congo, and Cuba. He prayed in a Mosque and a synagogue, a jail cell with his assassin and in front of an armless musician, Tony Melendez, in Los Angeles. He sought to bring the message of Christ to all people. When you have the peace that Christ has given to all of us, you need not live in fear. Be Not Afraid!

His Athleticism

Quite often, the lives of the saints seem unrelatable. We see their devotion to God and the sacrifices they made as something we could never do. But when I read about St. John Paul II’s athleticism, I realized he had everyday gifts and talents just like me.

It’s a well-known fact that JPII was an athlete, possibly the most athletic pontiff in history. From the article "Pope as sportsman loved to ski, swim", we learn that while growing up in the Polish town of Wadowice, he played goalkeeper for his local soccer team. 'Lolek the Goalie,' as his teammates called him, also took frequent dips in the Skawa River and played ice hockey on its surface once its waters froze in winter. Karol Wojtyla, as he went by then, would hike up mountains for nearly five hours just to ski to the bottom in ten minutes. Unlike most of us, John Paul II didn't forget what was important to him or what made him happy.

He remained active, even after becoming pope in 1978. During the first summer of his papacy, the pope had a pool built at his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, said biographer George Weigel. He also took breaks during the first 15 years of his pontificate to go skiing, hitting the slopes at 72 years young.

To read about St. John Paul II’s athletic gifts and appreciation for sports makes me love and revere him ever more. Rather than keep him as a distant spiritual hero or as some icon, I wonder what he must have been like as a teammate, or an athlete I coach. I want to know about times he might have been challenged by rulings, limitations and loss. I have a sense that ‘Lolek the goalie” demonstrated excellence in sportsmanship and in victory.

His Love for God’s Created World

Long before Pope Francis wrote his latest encyclical on the environment— Laudato Si: On Care For Our Common Home, St. John Paul shared The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility for the celebration of the World Day of Peace. Offered on New Year’s Day in 1990, the Holy Father’s message urged humanity to consider that peace with all of creation is peace with God the Creator.

St. John Paul II wrote,

“Finally, the aesthetic value of creation cannot be over-looked. Our very contact with nature has a deep restorative power; contemplation of its magnificence imparts peace and serenity. The Bible speaks again and again of the goodness and beauty of creation, which is called to glorify God.”

St. John Paul II’s loved the way that his passions of skiing, hiking and kayaking availed himself of the restorative powers of nature. He found majesty in nature’s diversity. He said, “I write of flowers, but nature is evidenced in seascapes and mountaintops, majestic trees, flora and fauna.”  He named the most popular saint in the world, St. Francis of Assisi to be the patron saint of Ecology. Indeed, St. John Paul II’s life and legacy point to the gift of the creation, a reflection of the Creator.

His Writing: In Defense of Life

St John Paul II was an outspoken voice for the unborn. In fact he referred to abortion as an act so grave that it ought to be deemed an unspeakable crime. The philosopher in him knew that it was important not to couch the choice of abortion as anything less than it is “the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth.” It bothered the Holy Father that our society referred to the time that a woman carries a child in her womb as “interruption of pregnancy,” rather than the gift of life.

In the 1995 Encyclical: Human Vitae—on Human Life, the Holy Father “condemned a growing and widespread ‘culture of death’ in which moral 'crimes' such as abortion and euthanasia are viewed as individual rights.”

St. John Paul II said, “What is urgently called for is a general mobilization of consciences and a united ethical effort to activate a great campaign in support of life. All together, we must build a new culture of life….”

One of the most important questions we can ask in our hearts, homes, parishes, cities, states and nation is one he urged us to answer: How can we promote the Gospel of Life in the midst of a culture of death?

A Great Saint, A Great Life

The canonization of St. John Paul II took place one week after Easter—on Divine Mercy Sunday 2014. He was honored on this great day with Saint John XXIII—the Pope who commissioned Vatican II. Saint John Paul II’s feast day is October 22, the day he became the Holy Father, thirty-six years earlier.

Named TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year in 1994, with time we will only gain more insight on the profound personal, spiritual, political, and historical impact one great man had on not only the Catholic Church, but the world at large. St. John Paul II was no stranger to grief, tragedy and loss. And yet, he loved life—God’s magnificent creation in both humanity and the beauty of this world. The world will never see another person like him, I feel blessed to have been a witness to his leadership, his message and his love.


What have you learned from the life of St. John Paul II? Share in the comments below!