“But looking at the fuller picture, I clearly see that a number of situations and individuals had a positive influence on me, and that God was using them to make his voice heard.” — Pope Saint John Paul II
Think of everything that Karol Wojtyła brought with him to Rome: his teachings, his knowledge, his holiness, his philosophy, his way of looking at certain things, and his concerns about family, youth, human rights, and more. All of this—his experience and contribution—came from events and people who shaped his mind and heart in the early years of his life.
Karol Wojtyła’s parents, Emilia Kaczorowska and Karol Wojtyła père, greatly influenced the future pope’s vocation with their example of deep faith, love, and Christian values that permeated their daily lives in an extraordinary way. As pontiff, he would later remark in his book Gift and Mystery: “My preparation for the priesthood in the seminary was in a certain sense preceded by the preparation I received in my family, thanks to the life and example of my parents.” Little Karol learned from his mother the sign of the cross. “This mystery was taught to me by the hands of my mother, who, by folding my little hands, showed me how to draw the cross, the sign of Christ, who is the Son of the living God.”
After his mother’s untimely death, Karol fils spent many years of his life with his father. Wojtyła reminisced about his widowed father: “His life became one of constant prayer. 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. We never spoke about a vocation to the priesthood, but his example was in a way my first seminary, a kind of domestic seminary.” Karol père taught his son to pray to the Holy Spirit as well. Years later, the pope recalled, “It was a great spiritual lesson, longer-lasting and stronger than all that I had received through my many readings and studies. In a certain sense, I owe him my encyclical on the Holy Spirit.”
Next, there was Father Kazimierz Figlewicz, little Karol’s childhood confessor, catechism teacher, spiritual director, and parish priest in his town of Wadowice. As Wojtyła confirmed, “Thanks to him I grew closer to the parish, became an altar server, and had a hand in organizing a group of altar servers… He instilled in me a great love for the Cathedral at Wawel,” in Kraków, “which one day would become my episcopal Cathedral.”
While attending the Marcin Wadowita High School in Wadowice before the Second World War, Karol fils was fascinated and influenced by Poland’s great Romantic writers: Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, Cyprian Kamil Norwid, Zygmunt Krasiński, and, from a later period, Stanisław Wyspiański. These five poets were defenders of the national spirit during the years of Poland’s partition, when the Russians and Germans tried to eradicate the Polish culture and language in the Polish territories they occupied.
From the earliest years of his literary activity, Wojtyła was fascinated by Norwid’s philosophy especially. In his 2001 address to the representatives of the Institute of Polish National Patrimony celebrating the 180th anniversary of Norwid’s birth, John Paul II stated: “I honestly wanted to offer my personal debt of gratitude to the poet, with whose work I have been bound by a deep spiritual kinship since my secondary school years. During the Nazi occupation, Norwid’s thoughts reinforced our hope in God, and in the period of the unjust and contemptuous dealings of the Communist system, he helped us persevere along with the truth, given to us as a duty to be lived with dignity. Cyprian Norwid left an opus from which shines the light that lets us more deeply penetrate the truth of our being as human persons, Christians, Europeans and Poles.”
It was also in high school that Wojtyła first met Mieczysław Kotlarczyk, who was to influence the future pope’s appreciation for the spoken word and its extraordinary power. He was a theater director and a theorist of the “theater of the word.” Kotlarczyk remained affiliated with the so-called Rhapsodic Theatre, which he managed from 1941 and which operated clandestinely under the auspices of the Unia (“the Union”) underground resistance organization.
Next to Jan Tyranowski, a mystic and leader of Karol Wojtyła’s Marian prayer group, Kotlarczyk exerted the greatest influence on Wojtyła’s intellectual life. He was his teacher, spiritual guide, and intellectual partner for discussions about Poland, history, art, literature, the mission of the theater, the role of the actor, and the power of the word. It was under the influence of Mieczysław Kotlarczyk that the views of Karol Wojtyła on the importance of Romantic literature and culture in the history of the Polish nation were shaped.
Further, Wincenty Bałys became a close friend of Karol’s and an important artistic influence. Bałys was a painter, sculptor, great patriot, altruist, hard worker, and a true friend. He imparted an artistic sensibility to the future pope. Wojtyła even shared his first poems with Bałys and discussed future artistic projects with him. Bałys, Wojtyła, and Kotlarczyk got along splendidly. They understood art as service for God and man.
Jan Tyranowski—a layman in the Salesian parish of the region of Dębniki, dedicated to Saint Stanisław Kostka—likewise markedly influenced young Wojtyła’s life after they met in 1940. Tyranowski was a man of particularly deep spirituality, and a leader of the “Living Rosary” group. It consisted of fifteen young men (the same number as the decades of the rosary) who committed themselves to a friendship in pursuit of Christian perfection, with Wojtyła as one of its first leaders. Leading a Living Rosary group, Jan Tyranowski took responsibility for the lives of these young men entrusted to him.
The experience played a significant role in Wojtyła’s maturation. Tyranowski not only directed his soul toward God, faith, and religious truths, but also deepened Karol’s experience of prayer. Moreover, Tyranowski’s great contribution to Karol Wojtyła’s life was to introduce him to Saint John of the Cross, the sixteenth-century Spanish reformer of the Carmelite order who was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1926. In a testament to Tyranowski’s lasting influence, Wojtyła chose to write his doctorate in theology many years later on “The Doctrine of Faith in Saint John of the Cross.”
Karol Wojtyła was also influenced by Carmelite spirituality and even considered entering Carmel at a certain moment of his spiritual evolution. As John Paul II, he recalled: “For a time I also considered entering the Carmel. My uncertainties were resolved by the Archbishop, Cardinal Sapieha, who in his typical manner said tersely: ‘First you have to finish what you have begun.’ And that is what happened.”
Prince Adam Stefan Cardinal Sapieha, the Archbishop of Kraków, behaved like a real father of his country during the war and the terrible occupation. He played a key role in Karol Wojtyła’s vocation. In 1942, aware of his call to the priesthood, Karol began courses in the clandestine seminary of Kraków, run by Cardinal Sapieha. In his book Gift and Mystery, Wojtyła states:
A powerful influence on our whole period of formation for the priesthood was exercised by the towering figure of the Prince Metropolitan, the future Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha, whom I remember with affection and gratitude. His influence on us was increased by the fact that, during the period of transition, before the reopening of the seminary, we lived in his residence and met him every day.
Wojtyła was ordained to the priesthood by Cardinal Sapieha himself on November 1, 1946. Shortly afterwards, the cardinal sent him to Rome to begin doctoral studies in theology at Rome’s Pontifical Athenaeum of Saint Thomas Aquinas (known as “the Angelicum”) in 1946. Cardinal Sapieha was a man of faith, prayer, and great courage in the most difficult moments of our history. John Paul II cherished the memory of him for the rest of his life.
Another person of great influence on Wojtyła’s intellectual development was professor Roman Ingarden, one of Husserl’s original students. He dedicated his scholarly life to phenomenology. Over time, Wojtyła and Ingarden established an intellectual alliance.
And we must not forget Saint Brother Albert. Albert Chmielowski has a special place in the history of Polish spirituality. He took part in the anti-Russian January Uprising of 1863 and lost his leg in the fighting. As a painter, he abandoned his artistic work because he realized that God was calling him to a more important task—namely, a monk’s habit and works of charity for the poor. In Gift and Mystery, Karol Wojtyła confirms: “I found in him a real spiritual support and example in leaving behind the world of art, literature and the theatre, and in making the radical choice of a vocation to the priesthood.” It is worthy to mention that Karol Wojtyła wrote a play in honor of Saint Brother Albert entitled The Brother of Our God.
Finally, we should briefly mention Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński, Poland’s primate in the middle of the 20th century, who played a significant role in Polish history and in Karol’s life as well. Throughout Wojtyła’s life, Wyszyński was his mentor, friend, partner, and a great supporter. The future pope was impressed by Wyszyński’s values, leadership, strength, and his devotion to the Church as he navigated Poland’s difficult social and political situation. Wojtyła was always next to him, always at his side, always friendly, always full of respect, and always transparently loyal to him. He preferred to remain in the shadow whenever the two appeared together.
At the same time, Wojtyła had his own way of talking to people, his own way of solving problems or interpreting history, and his own tactics to protect the Church and mediate with intellectuals. Wyszyński respected Karol Wojtyła and he appreciated the deference accorded to him in return by the Cracow ecclesiast. History shows that each needed the other. Together, the conservative Wyszyński and the moderate Wojtyła helped to defeat the communist regime in Poland. They were true representatives of the Polish people in their fight for individual sovereignty, religious freedom, and human rights.
Looking at a fuller picture of Wojtyła’s early life, we should mention important events that influenced his entire life: Karol losing his family at a very young age, his work as a forced laborer at Solvay under German occupation, and his experience of the brutality of the Second World War and Communism in Poland. Alas, there is no room here to elaborate on this broad topic with its detailed and complex context. These events will be the subject of a future article.
In the meantime, we may say that the influences, lessons, and experiences of Karol Wojtyła’s early life influenced not only the man John Paul II, but also his papacy and his Vatican. As John Paul’s aide Stanisław Cardinal Dziwisz once said said, “In the end, he transformed it all into something profoundly new, something that put the stamp of change on his pontificate.”