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Diplomacy and Conflict • Cold War Leadership

As the first non-Italian pope since 1523, John Paul II created a new image for the papacy and the Catholic Church in the late 20th century. John Paul was the most accessible and traveled of all popes, having celebrated mass outside of Italy 104 times. John Paul played an important part in the development of the Polish Solidarity movement and was instrumental in the fall of communism, particularly in Soviet bloc nations. John Paul stunned the world late in 1999 when he publicly apologized for the Church's persecution of Jews, the evils of the Inquisition, and forced conversions in the 16th and 17th centuries. Known as the "millennial pope," his was the longest pontificate of the 20th century and the second longest in Church history.

Early Life

John Paul was born Karol Jozef Wojtyla on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, Poland, the son of Karol Wojtyla, a pensioned army sergeant, and Emilia Kaczorowska. His mother encouraged him to pursue a vocation in the priesthood, and he served as an altar boy at the Church of Our Lady in Wadowice. His mother died when he was only eight years old. John Paul and his father grew very close after his mother's death, and his father was responsible for instilling in the young boy a basic religious education. John Paul was like many children of his age, active in sports and particularly interested in skiing and soccer. He was also deeply interested in theater, participating in several plays and receiving acting instruction at the Amateur Theater University in Wadowice. He also wrote poetry and some plays.

World War II

The Nazi occupation of Poland took place one year after John Paul graduated from high school in 1938. Jagiellonian University of Krakow, which he was attending, was shut down. Most of the professors were either killed or deported, and the Polish were forbidden to attend any cultural events. In 1941, John Paul's former theater teacher arrived in Krakow, and the two formed an underground theater group called the Rhapsodic Theater in open defiance of the Nazi regime. During that period, John Paul became friends with Jan Tyranowski, an eccentric tailor and mystic who played a very influential role in his life. The friendship helped John Paul see a new world of faith and grace that furthered his spiritual quest.

Many of John Paul's Jewish friends were deported during World War II, and he himself was arrested in 1942. He was released after the Germans discovered he worked at a quarry, a job deemed necessary for the war effort. Throughout that time, John Paul continued to work at the underground theater at the risk of his own life. When the Germans assigned him to work at a chemical plant toward the end of the war and intensified their efforts to destroy Polish culture, John Paul joined the secret seminary of Archbishop Sapieha in 1944. He was ordained two years later.

Early Priesthood

John Paul continued his studies in Rome and received his doctorate in theology and a postdoctoral degree in philosophy. In the late 1940s, he went back to Poland, where he worked as a parish priest and as a professor of ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin. He published his views on the Church and sexuality in Love and Responsibility (1960), which contained many of the views that later characterized his position on the issue as pope. From 1962 to 1965, John Paul participated in Vatican II and contributed the document Gaudium et Spes, or "Constitution on the Church in the Modern World." In 1964, he was named archbishop of Krakow.

John Paul also became concerned with religious liberty, which he claimed the Church should grant to all. He fought to combat the Church's traditional view that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. John Paul became a cardinal in 1967. In Poland, he was considered a supporter of reform and a defender of human rights; his influence was recognized behind the rise of the prodemocracy movement Solidarity.

Elected as Pope

After the deaths of Paul VI and John Paul I, John Paul was elected pope on October 16, 1978. Inaugurated on October 22, he became the first non-Italian pope since the 16th century. He was seen as a champion of the poor and oppressed, and his visit to Poland in 1979 was a crucial step in bringing about the end of communist rule. John Paul traveled all over the world, visiting many nations in Africa. In Ireland, he called for peace between Protestants and Catholics, and in particular called upon the Irish Republican Army to "turn away from the path of violence." In the United States, he appealed to the richer nations to help combat poverty and oppression in developing countries.

John Paul was shot twice in St. Peter's Square on May 13, 1981, by a 23-year-old Turk named Mehmet Ali Agca. He was hospitalized for two-and-a-half months and endured five surgeries. From then on, he always traveled in what became known as the "popemobile," a bullet-proof vehicle from which the pope greets the crowds. In what many, including Christians, saw as an unprecedented gesture, John Paul visited his would-be assassin in jail two years later and forgave him.

In 1981, the Vatican reestablished full diplomatic relations with England, which had been severed in 1532, as part of John Paul's effort toward reconciliation among Christians and between Christians and other religions. In 1988, he excommunicated Archbishop Lefebvre of France, who had openly opposed the Vatican. He received harsh criticism from other liberal officials for what they called his authoritarianism and outdated views on such issues as contraception. John Paul is considered conservative on issues of theology and the Church's position on birth control, liberation theology, and women's ordination, but he appears liberal when it comes to the Church's responsibilities in the present and throughout its history.

Given his background, the estrangement between Catholics and Jews was of great concern for John Paul. In 1979, he prayed at Auschwitz for the victims of the Holocaust and established diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican. In 1986, he proclaimed those of the Jewish faith Catholic's "elder brothers" when he visited Rome's Central Synagogue, becoming the first known pontiff to enter a synagogue. The first pope to go to such apologetic lengths, John Paul wrote about Catholic inaction during World War II. The first time was in 1989, in an apostolic letter that exclaimed sorrow over the Holocaust; in 1998, he issued the document "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah" in which he apologized formally for Catholics who did not protect Jews during World War II. During the first official papal visit to Jerusalem in March 2000, John Paul extended the olive branch once again when he visited the Wailing Wall and quietly left a written prayer, known as a kvitel, in a crevice of the wall.

Visit to Holy Land

During that six-day visit to the Holy Land, John Paul visited Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, which each leader later proclaimed an endorsement of their cause of statehood. While there, he visited the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, another first in papal history. Wanting greatly to achieve peace in Israel, John Paul would meet with Arafat a total of nine times and maintained that the traditions of Israelis as well as Palestinians "should be granted equal respect." The pope also worked toward reconciliation between Roman Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox Church that occurred following the Great Schism of 1054. In May 2001, in Athens, John Paul offered a formal apology for the "deep wounds" Roman Catholics caused "their Orthodox brothers and sisters." In response, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I issued a pardon to Catholics for the sack of Constantinople in 1204.

Catholic Child Abuse Scandal

Probably one of the darkest chapters during John Paul's papacy was the child abuse scandal that roiled U.S. Catholicism when it was exposed in 2002. Although he spoke against the abuse and proclaimed it "an appalling sin in the eyes of God," many in and out of the Church believed his approach to be tepid at best and sought a stronger condemnation from the pope as well as the dismissal of Boston cardinal Bernard Law. He was more outspoken, however, against the U.S.-led Iraq War in 2003. John Paul sent a special envoy to Iraq in an effort to get the Iraqi government to comply with the United Nation's resolutions and avoid conflict with the United States. He also sent an envoy to meet with U.S. president George W. Bush to deliver his antiwar message.

John Paul's health began to deteriorate in the 1990s when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He remained active in his fight against violence and oppression throughout the world, however. In October 2003, the pope confirmed 31 new cardinals, ensuring that his successor would be chosen by a group of officials with his own political ideals. During his papacy, John Paul issued 14 encyclicals, or papal instructions, regarding various topics of concern for Catholics. He was also the author of three books, including the bestseller Crossing the Threshold of Hope in 1995. After being hospitalized numerous times beginning in February 2005, John Paul died in the Vatican on April 2, 2005.


On April 27, 2014, John Paul and a popular predecessor, John XXIII, the 261st pope, were canonized as saints by Pope Francis. Traditionally, after a person died, the Catholic Church waited 50 years before beginning the canonization process. John Paul's process shortened the waiting period to five years, but after his death, Pope Benedict XVI waived that waiting period and immediately began the canonization process for John Paul. The two miracles that served as evidence for John Paul's canonization were a Costa Rican woman's recovery from a brain aneurysm and the recovery of a French nun from Parkinson's disease.

"millennial pope," "Constitution World." "turn violence." "popemobile," "elder brothers" "We Shoah" "should respect." "deep wounds" "their sisters." "an God,"
Jose Valente
Dr. Jose Valente received his PhD in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has held positions as a technical writer, legal researcher, and lecturer at both California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo and the University of California, Santa Barbara. Valente was the recipient of the 2001 University of California President's Fellowship.

Further Reading

Accattoli, Luigi. Life in the Vatican with John Paul II. New York: Universe, 1999; Beigel, Gerard. Faith and Social Justice in the Teaching of Pope John Paul II. New York: Peter Lang, 1997; Colombo Sacco, Ugo. John Paul II and World Politics: Twenty Years of Search for a New Approach, 1978–1998. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 1999.

MLA Citation

Valente, Jose. "John Paul Ii." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/304502. Accessed 25 Aug. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2155829

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