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The Pope we never knew John Paul II, who makes his third visit to Canada this week to preside over the Catholic Church's World Youth Day, is at once among the most solitary and the most public people on the planet. His contradictions make sense only to those who understand what the young Karol Wojtyla experienced growing up in Poland before and after the Second World War. The Globe's MICHAEL VALPY introduces the child who was father to the Pontiff

John Paul II, who makes his third visit to Canada this week to preside over the Catholic Church's World Youth Day, is at once among the most solitary and the most public people on the planet. His contradictions make sense only to those who understand what the young Karol Wojtyla experienced growing up in Poland before and after the Second World War. The Globe's MICHAEL VALPY introduces the child who was father to the Pontiff

As Cardinal Pericle Felici made his way to the central loggia of St. Peter's Basilica to announce to the crowd on the square the election of a new Pope, he turned to Cardinal Franz Konig and asked: "How do you spell his name?"

He jotted down the answer: W-o-j-t-y-l-a. "What a terrible spelling," Cardinal Felici said. Five minutes later, the world learned the identity of the 263rd successor to St. Peter as Bishop of Rome: Karol Jozef Wojtyla (Voy-TEE-wah), cardinal archbishop of Krakow, taking the papal name John Paul II.

"Chi e?" -- "Who?" -- was the reaction from the Roman crowd, beneath an orange full moon on St. Peter's Square, that early evening of Oct. 16, 1978.

Nearly 24 years later, the question is still being asked.

Time, disease, surgeons' knives, shattered bones and (John Paul would say) the intentions of God have ruined the body of the muscular, barrel-chested 58-year-old, the skier, hiker and kayaker -- the born Taurus, the papal bull -- who strode onto the Vatican balcony in 1978 to begin one of the most eventful, complex and controversial pontificates in modern history.

Indeed, the afflicted physical wreck of a man who arrives next week in Toronto for his Roman Catholic Church's biennial World Youth Day has been described by his spokesman and adviser, Joaquim Navarro-Valls, as "a body pulled by a soul."

But chi e? The question that once alluded to the unknown name, the unknown face, is today asked about the person behind the best-known living name and face on Earth.

Despite the media's relentless interest in him for nearly a quarter-century, Karol Wojtyla remains, while incomparably visible, forever out of focus -- a seeming dog's breakfast of contradictions and incomprehensibility, his intensions beyond the grasp of much of his flock.

"Know the man and his background," a priest-administrator of a monastic order in Rome told the Guardian newspaper a few years back, "and [all] these years are perfectly in line."

In 1996, he told his biographer, the American theologian George Weigel: "They try to understand me from outside. But I can only be understood from inside."

The loner. Behind the persona of gregariousness and the yearning for companionship (he never eats a meal by himself), John Paul II is temperamentally solitary. His mother died when he was 8, his brother when he was 11, his father when he was 20 -- "all those whom I loved," he has said, "or might have loved" (a sister died in infancy, six years before his birth).

It is a trauma he still talks about in private, especially about his poignant loneliness after his father's death. John Wilkins, editor of the influential British Catholic magazine Tablet,has written: "Pope John Paul II has many characteristics of an orphan: He listens widely, hears few and decides alone."

Says Jesuit William Callahan, director of Quixote, a leading U.S. Catholic social-justice institute, "If John Paul has a fatal flaw, it's that he trusts only himself and his allies."

The romantic Pole. He was moulded from childhood as a Polish romantic and nationalist -- steeped in his country's history, mythology and literature by his father, an army officer, and infused with a passionate love of mythic Polish theatre by the first of his influential mentors, high-school teacher Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk.

He has written of "my special spiritual bond with the history of Poland." He believes that culture -- far more than political ideology or economics -- shapes humanity's path through history. Romantic symbols obsess him, such as the start of a new millennium, "a key to my pontificate." He believes all life is dramatically structured, and that the chief drama of life lies in the gap between "who I am" and "who I ought to be."

The poet and scholar.The published poems, plays, essays and academic writings of Karol Wojtyla fill more than three linear metres of bookshelf space. Only in his poems does he allow emotion to show, and they are at times astonishingly revealing of how he sees life, death, love and himself.One of his plays, The Jeweller's Shop, became a Burt Lancaster film.

At the other end of his intellectual spectrum, he is a scholar: He taught philosophy and ethics at a university for 20 years, and his views on issues such as contraception and human rights are intricately worked-out philosophical concepts rather than "conservative" or "liberal" positions.

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