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Pope John Paul II 1920~2005

The priesthood years: Rebel with a cause

Wojtyla as a young priest in Krakow, Poland.

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(CNN) -- In the early years of his priesthood, Karol Wojtyla served as a chaplain to university students at St. Florian's Church in Krakow. The church was conveniently located next to Jagiellonian University, where he was working on his second doctorate degree in theology, having already earned a doctorate in philosophy.

When the university's theology department was abolished in 1954, presumably under pressure from the communist government, the entire faculty reconstituted itself at the Seminary of Krakow, and Wojtyla continued his studies there.

He was also hired that same year by the Catholic University of Lublin -- the only Catholic university in the communist world -- as a non-tenured professor. The arrangement turned Wojtyla into a commuter, shuttling between Lublin and Krakow on the overnight train to teach and counsel in one city and study in the other.

He also founded and ran a service that dealt with marital problems, from family planning and illegitimacy to alcoholism and physical abuse. TIME magazine called it "perhaps the most successful marriage institute in Christianity."

In 1956, Wojtyla was appointed to the chair of ethics at Catholic University, and his ascent through the church hierarchy got a boost in 1958 when he was named the auxiliary bishop of Krakow.

When the Vatican Council II began the deliberations in 1962 that would revolutionize the church, Wojtyla was one of its intellectual leaders and took special interest in religious freedom. The same year, he was named the acting archbishop of Krakow when the incumbent died.

A genial and charming companion

Wojtyla has been described, by all accounts, as a genial and charming companion, a good listener and not above what TIME calls "good-natured kidding."

Margaret Steinfels, the former editor of Commonweal magazine in New York, described him as "a very brilliant man, very intelligent and very holy... extremely amiable and affable, and wonderful to talk and dine with."

Pope Cardinal
As a cardinal, Wojtyla was considered a moderate reformer.  

He also was shrewd enough not to let his distaste for communism show. His appointment as cardinal in 1967 by Pope Paul VI was welcomed by the government. Wojtyla was considered "tough but flexible" and a moderate reformer, but an improvement on old-school hard-liners who were unalterably opposed to communism and communists.

Wojtyla bided his time, engaging in a strategy that honored Catholic beliefs and traditions while accommodating the communist government.

The Catholic Church in Poland served as an important outlet for the expression of national feeling. In his book "John Paul II," George Blazynski wrote that Wojtyla encouraged this expression in a form that did not "provoke a brutal reaction by forces within and perhaps without the country."

But he also proved to be what Current Biography called "a resilient enemy of communism and champion of human rights, a powerful preacher and sophisticated intellectual able to defeat Marxists in their own line of dialogue."

According to George Weigel, who has written extensively about the pope, Wojtyla demanded permits to build churches, defended youth groups and ordained priests to work underground in Czechoslovakia.

Wojtyla was once asked if he feared retribution from government officials.

"I'm not afraid of them," he replied. "They are afraid of me."

Learned and scholarly

start quoteIt is the task of the Church, of the Holy See, of all pastors, to fight on the side of man, often against man himself.end quote
-- From a 1976 sermon given while still a cardinal and the archbishop of Krakow

In spite of all his activities, Wojtyla didn't slight his scholarly duties.

He wrote a treatise in 1960 called "Love and Responsibility" that laid out the foundation for what Weigel calls "a modern Catholic sexual ethic."

His second doctoral thesis -- "Evaluation of the Possibility of Constructing a Christian Ethic based on the System of Max Scheler" -- was published that same year.

In 1969, the Polish Theological Society published Wojtyla's "The Acting Person," a dense philosophical tract on phenomenology that Wojtyla discussed during a U.S. visit in 1978.

"All sorts of people turned up," recalls Jude Dougherty, chairman of the philosophy department at Catholic University in Washington, where the talk was held. "It was extremely well-received by people who were familiar with the subject. And those who weren't were awed to hear a cardinal who was very learned and very scholarly."

Weigel wrote that in 1976, when Wojtyla was invited to lead spiritual exercises before Pope Paul VI at a Lenten retreat, his first three references were to the Bible, St. Augustine and German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

In 1977, Wojtyla gave a talk at a university in Milan called "The Problem of Creating Culture through Human Praxis."

An emotional man

Although he had established himself as a formidable intellectual presence -- as well as an able administrator and fund-raiser -- few suspected that the Sacred College of Cardinals would choose Wojtyla as the next pope after the death of John Paul I in September 1978.

Charismatic and sociable, Wojtyla was recognized as a community leader in Krakow.  

But when the cardinals were unable to agree on a candidate after seven rounds of balloting, Wojtyla was chosen on the eighth round late in the afternoon of October 16.

He reportedly formally accepted his election before the cardinals with tears in his eyes. (Associates say the pope was an emotional man, and was often moved to tears by children.)

Wojtyla chose the same name as his predecessor -- whose reign lasted just 34 days before he died of a heart attack -- and added another Roman numeral in becoming the first Slavic pope. He was also the first non-Italian pope in 455 years (the last was Adrian VI in 1523) and, at 58, the youngest pope in 132 years.

"I was afraid to receive this nomination," he told the crowd from a balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square, "but I did it in the spirit of obedience to Our Lord and in the total confidence in His mother, the most holy Madonna."

Weigel said that when Wojtyla's election was announced, Yuri Andropov, leader of the Soviet Union's KGB intelligence agency, warned the Politburo that there could be trouble ahead. He was right.

Back - The early years  | Next - The papal years

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