On the evening of October 16, 1978, when Pericle Cardinal Fellici announced that the Church had a Polish pope, an astonished world expected that it might take some time for the newly-elected successor of St. Peter to learn his job. For Karol Cardinal Wojtyla of Krakow had had none of the preparation usually considered necessary for the papacy.
His Roman studies had lasted two brief years. He had not been trained in the diplomatic service of the Holy See. He had never held an office in the Roman Curia. Above all, he was not an Italian, not attuned to the nuances of “how we do things here,” as veteran Italian curialists say. In a word, he was an outsider, a straniero, and it was thought that he would have to be instructed in the ways and means of being a pope.
The first public appearance of Pope John Paul II should have demonstrated just how unfounded that expectation was. Within two hours of his election, John Paul broke centuries of tradition by addressing the vast crowd in St. Peter’s Square; his predecessors were simply presented urbi et orbi and gave their first apostolic blessing. The new pope signaled the great theme of his pontificate by identifying the “road of history” with the pathway of the pilgrim Church. And when an officious master of ceremonies tried to make him stop by whispering, Basta!, John Paul ignored him and kept on going.
As the ease with which he assumed and revitalized the papal office demonstrated, John Paul II’s life experience had prepared him remarkably well for his new responsibilities. He had come to a deep understanding of the pain, the drama, and the promise of the late 20th century, not as an abstract matter, but through hard personal experience refined by mature intellectual reflection and an intense life of prayer. Having been one of the intellectual architects of Gaudium et Spes, he was a grateful heir of the Second Vatican Council, which he had worked to implement in Krakow in a serious, sustained way. He had been one of the most creative and successful priests and diocesan bishops of his generation. He had shown how popular piety and intellectual sophistication need not be in conflict, but could be welded together into a powerful method of forcing social change. He had challenged the tyranny of politics, the totalitarian temptation in 20th century public life, through a witness to the truth about man.
Above all, he was a thoroughly convinced Christian, nothing in whose life took place outside the horizon of his Christian and Catholic conviction.
A Son of Free Poland
For twenty years, commentators have asked how John Paul II, given his Polish background, could be such a universal figure, capable of touching lives, hearts, and minds in hundreds of different historical and cultural settings. Perhaps it is time to recognize that the universal reach of the pope’s personality and message is the result of a particular heritage, a particular time, and a particular place.
Karol Jozef Wojtyla was born in Wadowice in western Galicia on May 18, 1920, months after Poland regained its independence after a 123-year-long absence from the map of Europe. But Poland the nation had survived when the Polish state had been partitioned away in 1795 by the Great Powers of the day. That experience of national survival through culture would prove immensely influential in shaping Karol Wojtyla’s view of the dynamics of history and his concept of the Church’s role in shaping that history.
His mother died before he received his first Holy Communion, and young Karol was raised by his father, a retired warrant officer of the Austro-Hungarian army who had briefly served in the army of free Poland. Karol Wojtyla, Sr. was the biblical “just man” who showed his son that piety and manliness were not antinomies. His own formal education had been limited; but “the Captain,” as he was known to everyone in Wadowice, was an autodidact and a man of culture and learning. He taught his son German, read him the classics of Polish Romantic literature, and gave Karol and his friends personal lessons in Polish history. Christian conviction, informed by long military service in a multinational institution, had also made the Captain a man without religious prejudice; respect for the religious convictions of others was another virtue he transmitted to his son.
Perhaps 20 percent of the inter-war population of Wadowice was Jewish and, until the ideological madnesses of the late 1930s began to filter through to this provincial town, Wadowice prided itself on its tolerance. The local clergy taught that good relations with their Jewish neighbors were a Christian and civic obligation for Catholic Poles. Some of young Karol Wojtyla’s closest friends as a schoolboy were Jews and early in life he came to see anti-Semitism as an absurdity: How could one hold in contempt a people who “prayed to the same God”?
Prayer was something else young Karol learned from the example of his widower-father: “Sometimes I would wake up during the night and find my father on his knees, just as I would always see him kneeling in the parish Church.” The Captain urged his son to pray, daily, the “prayer to the Holy Spirit,” through which young Karol came to think of life as vocational. A man’s experience was not a random series of incidents; there was purpose in the world; God had a vocation in mind for every human being; to grow up meant to discern that purpose and then conform one’s life to it.
Karol Wojtyla received an excellent preparatory education in Wadowice, following a curriculum that emphasized classical languages, literature, and history. During his high school years, young Wojtyla also discovered a passion for the theater under the influence of an avant-garde dramatic theorist and director, Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk. A committed Christian, Kotlarczyk thought of theater as a way of transmitting the truth about life: Theater was a vocation, a way of perfection. He developed the concept of a “theater of the inner word,” stripped of props, elaborate costumes, and the rest of the paraphernalia of the stage, in which the action of the drama took place in the consciousness of the audience. Through the perfect enunciation of a playwright’s words, Kotlarczyk’s actors could break open the truths of the human condition. The power of the spoken word of truth, he insisted, was capable of changing lives and history in spite of tremendous physical and material obstacles. It was a lesson not lost on Karol Wojtyla.
Accompanied by his father, Karol Wojtyla left Wadowice in 1938 to pursue his interests in literature, language, and the theater at Krakow’s venerable Jagiellonian University. He immersed himself in his studies and in student life, joining various literary and theatrical clubs. On September 1, 1939, the young man had gone to the cathedral to receive the sacrament of penance and serve Mass on the first Friday of the month when Luftwaffe bombs began to fall on the city. Karol Wojtyla’s life was about to change, drastically.
Life in Gestapoland
The searing experience of the Nazi occupation of Poland left an indelible imprint on Karol Wojtyla. To live amidst complete lawlessness, constantly aware of the threat of the concentration camps, not knowing whether one would be alive from one day to the next, caused some men to go mad and turned others into cynics, convinced of the absurdity and meaninglessness of life. The experience of the Occupation taught young Karol Wojtyla that reality is cruciform and that the only true security comes from the complete abandonment of self to the will of God the Father.
The Nazi occupation strategy in the General Gouvernement (those parts of Poland, including Krakow, that had not been incorporated into the Third Reich or handed over to Stalin) was to decapitate Polish culture and so render resistance less likely. In November 1939 the Jagiellonian University was shut down and many of its most distinguished professors shipped off to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The university quickly reorganized itself underground. Karol Wojtyla continued to pursue his education clandestinely at the risk of his life. Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk found his way to Krakow and he, Wojtyla, and three other young people (including actresses Danuta Michalowska and Halina Kroliekiewicz, who went on to distinguished theatrical careers) formed an underground “Rhapsodic Theater” to put Kotlarczyk’s radical ideas into practice. This, too, they did at grave personal risk, as the Occupation forbade any form of organized cultural activity. The penalty for violating the ban was execution or the concentration camp.
The Occupation also introduced Wojtyla to the world of manual labor: first, as a quarryman shoveling blasted limestone into carts, later as a water-tender at the Solvay chemical plant. The experience of back-breaking physical labor in below-freezing weather, the human interaction with his fellow-workers, and the puzzle of the relationship between the world of work and the world of intellect all raised questions for young Wojtyla, which he would ponder over the next half- century in poetry, philosophical essays, plays—and a papal encyclical.
At the same time as he was discovering the harsh realities of life in the limestone quarry, Karol Wojtyla was getting his first introduction to the Carmelite mystical tradition. When the Salesian priests of his parish were arrested and deported to Dachau, a tailor named Jan Tyranowski formed groups of young men into “Living Rosary” circles and instructed them in the rudiments of the spiritual life. Tyranowski also introduced Wojtyla to the works of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, thus opening up a new horizon of mysticism and spiritual theology to the young man. Tyranowski was another mentor who insisted that nothing that happened in life should happen outside the boundaries of one’s Christian commitment.
The worlds of work and spirituality intersected in young Karol Wojtyla’s life when, during his nocturnal reading at the chemical plant, he explored the works of Louis Grignon de Montfort. Until this encounter Wojtyla’s Marian piety had been rather conventional. Montfort taught him that all true Marian piety was Christocentric and Trinitarian, and that to say totus tuus to Mary was to enter more deeply into the mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption.
Karol Wojtyla, Sr. died in February 1941, leaving his son orphaned and without material inheritance in a city under draconian foreign occupation. These were circumstances in which one grew up very fast, and the multiple vectors of his wartime experience combined to press on young Karol the question of his own vocational path.
Amidst his intense underground involvement in literary studies and the theater, he had begun to discern a call to the priesthood. After considerable internal wrestling, he presented himself to the archbishop of Krakow, Adam Stefan Sapieha, who accepted him into the seminary he was then conducting in secret. For almost two years, Wojtyla lived a double-life, working at the chemical factory while pursuing his preliminary philosophical studies at home or by the dim light of the Solvay plant’s night shift. In the early morning hours he would sometimes slip across the Debniki bridge to Krakow’s old town and the archbishop’s residence, where he would serve Archbishop Sapieha’s private Mass. One of his fellow-servers and fellow-underground seminarians didn’t appear one morning; later that day, Wojtyla learned that he had been arrested and would be shot. One was taken, another remained. In the world’s eyes, it made no particular sense; to the eyes of a disciple, it had to fit, somehow, into a providential plan.
In August 1944, with the Nazis rounding up every young man they could find in Krakow in order to prevent a repetition of the Warsaw Uprising, Archbishop Sapieha called in his underground seminarians and reconstituted the clandestine seminary in his residence. Karol Wojtyla thus lived for the next several months in daily contact with the “Prince-Archbishop” (so called because he was of a noble Lithuanian family), who had emerged as one of the great exemplars of Polish resistance. Sapieha’s selflessness, his friendliness with the seminarians, his role as defensor civitatis during the Occupation, and his nightly retreat into his chapel, where he prayed alone for an hour while bringing the day’s difficulties before the Lord, left a deep impression on Karol Wojtyla.
The archbishop ordained him to the priesthood on November 1, 1946 and then sent him to Rome’s Angelicum to take his doctorate in theology. According to the Church’s theology, Father Karol Wojtyla had been changed forever by the laying on of hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit. The young man whom Sapieha ordained had also been marked indelibly by the experience of the Occupation. He had learned that totalitarianism could be resisted through the instruments of culture, and that the power of the human spirit was, in fact, stronger than material force. He had absorbed a distinctively unclerical, heroic model of the priesthood—priestly ministry as radical self-giving—from Archbishop Sapieha, from the Salesians lost at Dachau, and from the example of Maximilian Kolbe, whose self-sacrifice in Auschwitz became known in Krakow shortly after the war. He had learned the dignity as well as the drudgery of manual labor, and had come to respect the straightforward honesty and piety of uneducated working men. He had known hunger, cold, and the far worse pain of intense loneliness. He had participated in the great experience of his contemporaries: humiliation at the hands of evil.
But instead of bitterness and despair, that humiliation had led him to the altar. Self-giving service, not self-assertion in self-indulgence, was the Christian answer to the systematic degradation of the human person.
On returning from his Roman studies in late 1948, Father Karol Wojtyla spent eight months at a rural parish before being transferred to St. Florian’s Church in Krakow, where he began an innovative ministry to university students at the height of Polish Stalinism. The contest for the next generation was being bitterly fought between Polish communists and the Church, and Cardinal Sapieha (who had received the red hat at the first postwar consistory in 1946) wanted to deploy some of his most intellectually accomplished priests in the struggle. Father Wojtyla immediately began to attract a youthful following, who found him a compelling alternative to professors cowed by the communist regime and to the more clerically- minded Polish clergy they knew.
Youth ministry thus became one of the defining characteristics of Karol Wojtyla’s early priesthood, as it would be of his episcopate and papacy. He began a series of evening talks on the problem of God and the spiritual nature of the human soul, what he called “extremely important issues, given the militant atheism being promoted by the communist regime.” He taught a group of students Gregorian chant and introduced them to the “dialogue Mass,” a dramatic innovation at that time. He engaged children and students alike in producing medieval “mystery plays” during Lent, thus putting his theatrical experience to pastoral use. And he began a lifelong involvement with issues of marriage and family life, starting, in 1950, the first marriage-preparation course in the history of the Krakow archdiocese.
The family was another battleground with the communist regime, which arranged housing, work schedules, and schools in order to separate children from their parents and spouses from each other. Both Wojtyla and the regime understood that someone secure in the love of his family was a threat to communism’s reach. For the future pope, the defense of marriage and the family became, in public terms, what a later generation of east central European dissidents like Vaclav Havel would call the defense of “civil society.”
But the experience of helping young couples prepare for marriage was not primarily a political act. It was a priestly and religious act that shaped Karol Wojtyla’s view of the world in a fundamental way: “As a young priest I learned to love human love.” That love for human love became one of the principal themes of his preaching, his work as a confessor, his writing, and his counseling. Decades later, it would lead to some of the most creative theological work of his pontificate, his Theology of the Body.
Many of the students he met and helped form at St. Florian’s became Karol Wojtyla’s lifelong friends; they called him Wujek, “Uncle,” and he called them his Srodowisko, his “milieu.” Karol Wojtyla was a completely dedicated priest, some of whose closest friends were lay people. His pastoral strategy of “accompaniment” was also an innovation in a clerical environment, which, for centuries, had simply given instruction to a passive laity. That was not Wojtyla’s idea of the priesthood, nor was it his idea of the Church.
During his early years as a priest, Wojtyla developed a remarkable capacity for listening, which members of his Srodowisko remember as among his most striking personal characteristics. Thus, by the testimony of his former penitents, Father Wojtyla was a “fantastic” confessor, for whom a sacramental encounter of an hour or more was not a rarity. In Wojtyla’s view, the sacrament of Penance was a deeply personal encounter in which confessor and penitent explored the unique drama of a Christian’s life-situation through the prism of the Gospel. Wojtyla always stressed the responsibility of choice: “You must decide” was the hallmark of his counsel. But at the same time he stressed the responsibility of choosing wisely. The goal was to live life vocationally and to sanctify all of life through one’s choices. Thus the pastoral strategy of “accompaniment” continued in the confessional: the confessor was less a judge going through a checklist of prohibitions than a companion assisting the penitent to a deeper discernment of his or her spiritual life.
While working with students and beginning his academic career (by the preparation of his Habilitationsschrift on Max Scheler and his subsequent teaching appointment at the Catholic University of Lublin), Father Karol Wojtyla engaged in a wide-ranging dialogue with the members of the Krakow intelligentsia and began to write for publication in Tygodnik Powszechny, the Krakow Catholic weekly, and Znak, a monthly journal. His scholarly interests in moral philosophy led to a 20-part series, “The ABC’s of Ethics,” in Tygodnik Powszechny in 1957-58; he also published essays on topics ranging from the worker-priest movement in France to Christian anthropology. He continued to write poetry and plays, published pseudonymously. The young priest wrestled with the question of revolutionary violence in Our God’s Brother, a 1950 drama based on the life of Adam (“Brother Albert”) Chmielowski, an accomplished painter who became a servant of the Krakow homeless and founded a religious community for service to the poorest of the poor. In Front of the Jeweler’s Shop, written a decade later, drew on the experiences of Wojtyla’s Srodowisko to explore the psychological, moral, and spiritual dynamics of love and marriage. Father Wojtyla’s literary activity was not a hobby; he had come to the conclusion that some truths could only be approached and expressed imaginatively. His poetry and his plays, expressions of a continuing search for a more adequate communication of experience and thought, were another way of “being with” others.
Father Karol Wojtyla lived in self-imposed poverty. Yet his asceticism did not cut him off from the world so much as clear space in his life for engaging the world more fully. He read voraciously and was interested in everything, with one exception: he was wholly indifferent to what passed for politics in the Poland of the 1950s. He was a priest devoid of clericalism and a celibate who spoke freely and wisely about the Christian vocation to sexual love in marriage. He held his friends and penitents to high standards, and they experienced this as liberation (if challenging liberation), not burden.
A man who had experienced paternity at its best through his own father and in his relationship with Cardinal Sapieha, Father Wojtyla revealed in the first decade of his priesthood his own remarkable gift for paternity, and came to think of fatherhood as the basic structure of reality. For he came to think of fatherhood as the basic structure of reality. As he later put it in “Reflections on Fatherhood”:
Everything else will turn out to be unimportant and inessential except for this: father, child, love. And then, looking at the simplest things, all of us will say: could we have not learned this long ago? Has this not always been embedded at the bottom of everything that is?
That fatherhood—not protons or electrons—is “at the bottom of everything that is” is, to be sure, a poet’s view of reality. But it opens up a new angle of vision on a basic New Testament theme. And this way of discerning the world’s meaning would eventually yield a new style of papacy.
The Experience of Vatican II
First, Karol Wojtyla would live out his instinct for paternity as a local bishop. Named auxiliary bishop of Krakow in July 1958, he was elected vicar capitular and de facto administrator of the archdiocese in July 1962, just before the opening of the Second Vatican Council.
The Antepreparatory Commission established by John XXIII to help devise the Council’s agenda had written to all the bishops of the world, soliciting their views on possible topics of consideration. Many bishops sent in outlines of agenda items dominated by canonical and disciplinary issues. Bishop Karol Wojtyla, age thirty-nine, submitted an essay on the crisis of humanism in the 20th century, proposing that the Council articulate a contemporary Christian personalism as the Church’s answer to the devastation that false humanisms married to industrial-age technology had wrought. In his view, that was the crisis the Council had been called to address. He would maintain that conviction throughout the four sessions of Vatican II, in all of which he was an active participant.
Wojtyla’s view of the Council was thus wholly different from those who insisted on seeing it as essentially a political struggle between “progressives” and “conservatives” for power in the Church. He was not an innocent, and he understood that there were different currents of thought, with different vested interests, involved at Vatican II. But to think of the Council as primarily a political exercise seemed to him to miss its essential character as a religious event. The Church, he insisted, then and later, was about service, not about power; the Holy Spirit, not ideological factions or ecclesiastical parties, was the true protagonist of the Second Vatican Council.
If the world crisis that the Council was called to address was what Wojtyla later called (in a letter to Henri de Lubac) the “pulverization of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person,” then it was a mistake to think of the Council’s product as a set of discrete documents, some having to do with internal matters of the Church and others with the Church’s external mission. The Council, in Wojtyla’s mind, should be understood as a coherent whole, a single structure whose foundations were its three constitutions: the Dogmatic Constitutions on the Church (Lumen Gentium), the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). He made his own most significant contribution to the Council’s work in helping prepare the draft of Gaudium et Spes that was debated at Vatican II’s fourth session in the Fall of 1965. And in Gaudium et Spes he found two “keys” to the Council as a holistic response to the contemporary crisis of humanism.
Gaudium et Spes 22 (“… it is only in the mystery of the Word that the mystery of man truly becomes clear”) was the theological linchpin of Vatican II. Because Christ revealed, not only the face of the Father, but the truth about humanity, a Christologically-centered anthropology was what the Church proposed to “the modern world” as the answer to the deficient or false anthropologies that had led the 20th century down so many blind and bloody alleys. In a complementary way, Gaudium et Spes 24 (“… man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself”) was the philosophical linchpin of the Council. There was a “law of the gift” built into the human person and it constituted the fundamental dramatic structure of the human condition: the struggle to surrender the self-absorbed self I am to the self-giving self I ought to be. That this struggle was not futile or illusory was what Christians learned from the cross of Christ. Anthropology, again, was completed in Christology: Gaudium et Spes only made sense when read through the prism of Lumen Gentium and Dei Verbum.
To try to organize and understand the richness of Vatican II according to the conventional categories established by the world media—”liberal” and “conservative”—seemed to Archbishop Wojtyla to diminish and demean the reality of what had happened between October 1962 and December 1965 in the aula of St. Peter’s Basilica. Thus in presenting the Council’s work to his own archdiocese, Wojtyla adopted the classic notion of the threefold office or mission (munus) of Christ—priest, prophet, and king—as the schema by which to organize the Council’s teaching. The crisis of the world was the corruption of humanism; the answer of the Church was Christologically-centered anthropology; Christians lived that vision of the human in the world as priests (worshipers), prophets (truth-tellers), and servants.
Archbishop Wojtyla returned from the Council in December 1965 to celebrate Christmas Midnight Mass in a field in Nowa Huta, the “model workers’ town” near Krakow, built without a church by Poland’s communist regime. That Christmas Mass—a different kind of shepherd in a different kind of field, but with people still listening for the sounds of angels’ voices—was an appropriate symbol for the struggle for religious freedom and the “truth about man” that would unfold during the next thirteen years of his episcopate.
Karol Wojtyla has often referred to “my beloved Krakow.” Since the Counter-Reformation days when his namesake, Charles Borromeo, implemented the Council of Trent in Milan, there has been rarely a more perfect “fit” between a bishop and his diocese than the “fit” between Wojtyla and the city he had come to call his home. Yet because Krakow is a self-consciously European city with cultural links to both West and East, there was nothing nationalistic or narrow about the archbishop’s experience as a local bishop. It was precisely because of his experience of Krakow that Cardinal Wojtyla (who received the red hat in 1967) came to be seen as a man with a singular intuition about the mission of “the Church in the modern world” as a whole.
His ministry in Krakow was built around seven priorities. The first was religious freedom. The Church required space for its evangelical mission, and the struggle for this “space” took place in sharp-edged contests with the communist regime over building permits for new churches and over the public expression of Catholic belief and piety. For Wojtyla, religious freedom was not a sectarian issue, but a fundamental issue of human rights. In defending the religious liberty of his people, Cardinal Wojtyla emerged as a charismatic public personality, capable of giving voice to the quest of both believers and non-believers for that freedom which is an essential expression of the truth about the human person.
The cardinal’s second priority was the intellectual and pastoral formation of his priests. The regime had closed the faculty of theology at the Jagiellonian University in 1954, which, to Wojtyla’s mind, was an affront to Polish culture as well as to the Polish Church. Thus he nurtured an independent Pontifical Faculty of Theology in Krakow while teaching his young seminarians that holiness and a commitment to the care of souls were the secrets to pastoral success.
Youth ministry was the third prominent feature in the archbishop’s pastoral strategy. Here, Wojtyla showed an unusual ease with the charismatic element in the Church, supporting non-traditional renewal movements like the Light-and-Life movement of Father Franciszek Blachnicki. Youth ministry was a complement to the fourth priority in the archdiocese, family or “marriage” ministry. Cardinal Wojtyla created an Institute of Family Life to train priests and laity in service to engaged and married couples and their families. The goal of the institute was to further a couple-to-couple ministry in which experienced married couples and parents helped prepare young people for the responsibilities of marriage and family life. This included preparation for lives of sexual love, and the family ministry of the archdiocese embodied the themes that Wojtyla had developed in his first major book, Love and Responsibility, a modern presentation of the Church’s sexual ethic, read through the lens of Christian personalism. Given a more intensely theological reading in his papal Theology of the Body, Wojtyla’s presentation of marital love as an icon of the interior life of the Holy Trinity would become a powerful, if underappreciated, response to the challenges of the sexual revolution.
Outreach to those intellectuals whom the communist regime was determined to thresh from the husk of religious conviction was the fifth priority of Cardinal Wojtyla’s pastoral ministry in Krakow. Unlike other bishops (in Poland and elsewhere) who thought of intellectuals as threats, Wojtyla saw them, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, as a field for his episcopal apostolate, as allies in the struggle for freedom, and as friends. The archbishop met regularly with discussion groups of physicists, chemists, and engineers, on the one hand, and humanities scholars of various disciplines, on the other. His constant interaction with the world of culture distinguished him, not only from some of his colleagues in the Polish episcopate, but from those bishops in Western countries who were uninterested in or insecure around intellectuals and artists.
Parish visitation was the archbishop’s’ sixth priority and he worked at it steadily. A parish, in his mind, was not an accidental gathering of Christians who happened to live in the same geographical location; each parish was an embodiment of the threefold mission of Christ in which all the baptized shared. Thus, parish visitations for Wojtyla became opportunities to preach his profound conviction that sanctity was a universal vocation, not a clerical preserve. Parish visitations were also the occasion to encourage his seventh pastoral priority, the ministry of charity. Poland’s communist regime forbade the Church to operate charitable institutions, as Catholics did so extensively in other parts of the world. But in Wojtyla’s view, there was no Church without an active care for the sick, the poor, the marginalized, and the elderly. So the cardinal supported a range of independent charitable activities, ranging from an “open nursing program” that sought out and cared for those who had fallen through the cracks of the communist medical bureaucracy, to annual archdiocesan “Days of the Sick” and summer vacation programs to take the sick and the elderly out of smog-bound Krakow and into the countryside.
The key to Cardinal Wojtyla’s episcopate was the implementation of Vatican II. To bring the Council to every parish and institution in the archdiocese, he launched a new kind of diocesan synod, a seven-year long pastoral synod whose purpose was to relive the experience of the Council and give the people of the archdiocese a chance to read and digest the Council’s documents on their own. And by arranging to complete the Synod of Krakow on the 900th anniversary of the death of St. Stanislaw, the city’s great martyr-bishop, Cardinal Wojtyla helped his priests and people to understand Vatican II as a Council in continuity with the Church’s ancient heritage, a Council of ressourcement and aggiornamento. Hundreds of Synod discussion groups were formed, bringing together intellectuals and workers, clergy and laity, in a common effort to read the Council as a coherent whole: as a comprehensive Catholic answer to the modern world’s questions about the meaning of human existence, and as an evangelical response to the crisis of humanism in the late 20th century. In the Synod of Krakow, years of prayer, study, discussion, and reflection preceded concrete program-planning: a reversal of the pattern in much of western Europe and North America, where implementation plans were often devised before anyone had really had an opportunity to think through the Conciliar revolution and its relationship to the Church’s tradition. The Synod of Krakow built new communities and facilitated an intensified experience of the communio of the Church: this, to Wojtyla’s mind, was an essential first step toward the programmatic implementation of Vatican II. As a result of this vast initiative, which may well have been without parallel in the Catholic world, there was neither Lefebvrism in Krakow nor the auto-secularization that accompanied the reception of the Council in many western countries.
Historian Norman Davies has written of the “baffling unreality” of life in communist Poland during the ’60s and ’70s, a period when the regime tried to overcome the absurdity of its monopoly on political power and public “space” through a kind of practical materialism, a program of debt-financed consumption that eventually destroyed the Polish economy. In this strange environment, which nonetheless encapsulated many of the contradictions and tensions of modern life, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla developed a broad-gauged and highly effective armamentarium of tools of cultural resistance to communism, all the while articulating a Christologically-centered humanistic alternative to the false humanism of the Marxist-Leninist project. Against the final solitariness of atheism, he posited a human world in which we are not, ultimately alone.
And he did all this, not as a politician, but as a pastor and evangelist convinced that the truth which created and possessed the Church was the truth about the human person, human community, human history, and human destiny.
In the latter years of Pope Paul VI, who had seemed so perfectly prepared for the Chair of Peter, many Catholics wondered whether the papacy was an office beyond the capacities of any man. Cardinal Wojtyla, to those who knew him, was a living refutation of the claim that assertive, compelling pastoral leadership was impossible in the late 20th century. And he refuted that claim, not just by the effectiveness of his pastoral program in Krakow, but by the quality of his life and person, which had impressed congregations and academic audiences in Canada, Australia, the United States, and western Europe, as well as in the Vatican itself.
He was not an optimist; optimism was a fragile commodity, a matter of optics, of how one looked at things. But he was a man of hope, a much sturdier, theological virtue. In 1969, at the height of the post-conciliar agitation that was rocking a Church that seemed on the verge of either schism or simple dissolution, and in the wake of the cultural upheavals called “the ’60s,” he wrote his friend, the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac, in these striking terms:
… I too do not lose hope that the great crisis that now shakes us so painfully will lead humanity to the royal way. Perhaps it will no longer be open to us, but we have firmly hoped, we will always hope, and we are and will be happy.
This learned, pastorally experienced, charismatic, mystically-inclined, happy warrior was a man capable of leadership, not only in Krakow and Poland, but on a world stage. He had identified the crisis of modernity and had crafted an intellectually sophisticated and evangelically compelling response to it. He had also made his response work pastorally, under endless pressure from the regime that presumed to govern Poland and that challenged the Church in the name of history.
In 1878, Cardinal Domenico Bartolini summed up the case for the election of his candidate, Cardinal Gioacchino Pecci (who would become Leo XIII), in one sentence: “He has governed his diocese of Perugia very well.” So had Karol Wojtyla governed Krakow. Thus the real surprise of the second conclave of 1978 was not the Polish cardinal’s selection as Pope, but the conclave’s willingness to break with the 455- year tradition of Italian hegemony over the papacy.
Once that surprising decision was made, the choice of Cardinal Wojtyla, whose life had illustrated his conviction that there are no coincidences in the designs of Providence, was clear. No one was better prepared for the Office of Peter than the Archbishop of Krakow. He would be the rock to guide the hooves of the flock into the third millennium of Christian history, and the evangelist of hope at the end of a century of tears.