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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.

The pious Pole. He was raised by a deeply religious father ("a man of constant prayers," his son recalls) in a society where piety was, and is, normal. Poland has been described as the most intensely Catholic country in the world, and the messianic leitmotif to its literature is almost overwhelming. Its greatest Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz, called Poland the "Christ of all nations," ordained to suffer and to be persecuted but ultimately protected by the Virgin Mary, Queen of Poland.

Another 19th-century Romantic poet, Juliusz Slowacki, foretold of a Slavic pope who would not shrink from battle, but mount the battlements and face the sword.

John Paul II, the first Slavic pope, has made startling statements about being chosen by God for suffering ("The Pope has to be attacked, the Pope has to suffer," he said after breaking his hip in 1994) and Mary's interventions to protect him from death (after the 1981 assassination attempt against him, he said: "One hand fired and another guided the bullet" -- meaning Mary's hand stopped the bullet from being fatal).

He identifies himself with St. Stanislaw, patron saint of Poland and his predecessor by 900 years as bishop of Krakow, martyred by King Boleslaw II, whom Stanislaw had excommunicated for tyranny and unbridled lust.

The witness to tyranny. The Nazis began their genocidal occupation of Poland when Karol Wojtyla was 19. No country suffered more in the Second World War. The atheistic Communist dictatorship began when he was 25. It still gripped Poland 33 years later when, at the age of 58, he was elected Pope.

As bishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla was an iron man, confronting Poland's Stalinist government and its suppression of human freedoms -- just as another of his great mentors, Krakow's wartime archbishop, Adam Stefan Sapieha, had confronted the Nazis. John Paul has made the dominant themes of his papacy the protection of freedom of religion, protection of civil rights and protection of the sanctity of life beginning at conception, which, he says, is the imitation of God's Creation. He says that, without the paradigm of God, men and women are denied the opportunity to be fully human.

The mystic. His third influential mentor, Jan Tyranowski, a tailor, lay activist in the church and mystic, introduced him in 1940 to the theology of John of the Cross, the medieval Spanish Carmelite priest, poet and mystic. John taught that intense meditative or contemplative prayer led to the experience of becoming "God by participation" -- where the soul, the mind beneath the mind, achieves union with God.

Jan Tyranowski transformed Karol Wojtyla's concept of faith. His 1948 doctoral thesis was an exploration of John of the Cross's personal encounters with God, his experience of "being with" God that transcends all conventions of creaturely existence. He himself engages in meditative prayer -- frequently prostrate on the floor with his arms at right angles in the shape of the cross -- for as much as seven hours a day, entering into what he calls his "audience with God," a world beyond language. His staff say it is his meditative powers that keep his broken body moving.

The showman. Cardinal Wojtyla wore glasses. Pope John Paul II was fitted with contact lenses. They show off his grey-blue eyes very nicely.

Each of these qualities, indeed all that John Paul is -- showman, mystic, scholar, poet, pastor and man of obdurate steel -- was shaped years ago in Poland.

Karol Jozef Wojtyla was born on May 18, 1920, in the medieval town of Wadowice, a member of the first generation of Poles since the mid-1700s to be born into national freedom. The Second Polish Republic had been created in 1918 after a century-and-a-half of domination and colonization by foreign empires. It would last only 21 years.

Wadowice, on the River Skawa in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, is in the heart of the deeply religious region of Galicia, about 50 kilometres southwest of Krakow. In 1920, it had a population of 7,000, with a surprisingly large number of Jews (estimated at between 20 and 30 per cent).

His father, Karol senior, had followed in his own father's footsteps and apprenticed as a tailor, but then in 1900, at the age of 21, was drafted into the Austrian army -- Polish Galicia, at the time, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the First World War, he joined the new Polish army and was stationed in Wadowice's military garrison with the rank of lieutenant.

Karol senior's army file describes him as "extraordinarily well-developed, with a righteous character, serious, well-mannered, modest, concerned about honour, with a strongly developed sense of responsibility, very gentle and tireless [at work]."

He married convent-educated Emilia Kaczorowska, the fifth of 13 children of a Krakow upholsterer. Their first child, Edmund, was born in 1906. Their second child, Olga, born in 1914, died in infancy.

Young Karol was born in the family's three-room apartment on the second floor of a house on narrow Rynek (now Koscielna) Street, just off the town square and directly across from the town's principal church, St. Mary of Perpetual Succor.

His mother first called him "Lolus," then the less babyish "Lolek" -- the diminutive of Karol -- by which he would introduce himself even at university and by which his very few close friends still call him today.

The house where the family lived was owned by a Jewish merchant, Yechiel Balamuth, later killed at the Belzec extermination camp with his wife and three daughters. The apartment adjoining the Wojtylas' flat was occupied by the Jewish Beer family, whose daughter "Ginka" -- Regina, two years older than Lolek -- was his close friend, fellow high-school actor and one of the more beautiful girls in town.

(When she left for Palestine in 1938, the year before Hitler's Germany invaded Poland, after anti-Semitism forced her out of medical school and thugs had begun smashing windows of Jewish shops, 18-year-old Lolek saw her off at the train station, but was too upset to speak. He would next see her 50 years later, at a general papal audience on St. Peter's Square. She told him that her mother had been killed at Auschwitz and her father in the Soviet Union, and he held her hands for two minutes in front of thousands of people, and prayed.)

He was an extraordinarily bright student and gifted athlete. He swam in the Skawa, played soccer -- he was known to his pals as Lolek the Goalie -- and hiked and climbed in the mountains.

He was rather fat. He hated wearing neckties. He delighted -- and still delights -- in opening wrapped gifts. He had unruly hair. His school friends wrote a poem about him that ended: "Doesn't Wojtyla have a comb?"

In 1929, his mother died of kidney disease and congestive heart failure. He recalled waking up in the middle of the night after her death and seeing his father, sobbing, praying on his knees. Friends say he, himself, refused to speak of it -- until he was a student at Krakow's Jagiellonian University, and wrote in one of his first published poems:

Oh, how many years have gone by
Without You - how many years?
Over Your white grave
O Mother, my extinct beloved . . .

The Wojtylas, father and son, moved their beds into the same room. They rolled up the carpet and played soccer in the parlour. Each day, they ate their main meal together in a nearby small restaurant. Karol senior -- now retired and living on a meagre pension -- retailored his old uniforms into suits for Lolek to wear. Father taught son how to pray, helped with his catechism, saw him launched as an altar boy, read him poetry and stories about Polish heroes, and quizzed him on Polish history.

In 1932, Lolek's 26-year-old brother, Edmund, a physician, died of scarlet fever contracted from a patient. "These are events," John Paul told students at Jagiellonian University in 1983, "that became deeply engraved in my memory, my brother's death perhaps even deeper than my mother's death . . ."

In high school, he became devoted to theatre and 19th-century Polish literature, guided by talented teacher and drama addict Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk. At 16, he began writing poetry. He was serious, a disciplined student, who kept people at arm's length but was affable.

His faith deepened; he often went to St. Mary's twice, sometimes three times a day. He was president of the Altar Boys' Circle and the Marian Soldality (Fellowship of Mary youth group). He was handsome. He was popular -- one school friend remembers him as "too good to be true." No one remembers him dating; no one knew where his hormones were hiding.

He graduated at the top of his class in Polish, Latin, Greek, German, history, problems of contemporary Poland, philosophy and physical education.

In August, 1938, the Wojtylas moved to Krakow so that Lolek could enroll in Jagiellonian University and pursue a degree in Polish literature. He joined the drama school of the Krakow Theatre Brotherhood, the Circle of Polish Philology and the Lovers of Polish Language Association. He attended the Living Word lectures on the use of language and speech on the stage.

He took private French lessons, studied Russian, medieval Slavonics, drama, the use of "Humour, Comicality and Irony" in literature and the principles of Polish etymology.

He read his poems at literary evenings in the Blue Room of Krakow's Catholic House. He joined the university branch of the Marian Sodality, attended mass every Sunday and often on weekdays, and went on pilgrimages to Poland's Shrine of the Black Madonna. Classmates pinned a card to his desk: "Karol Wojtyla -- Apprentice Saint."

The German occupation began on Sept. 1, 1939. The Nazi master plan called for "the Polish nation [to] be transformed into an intellectual ghetto" with the "nobility, priesthood and Jews . . . liquidated," "the teachers and other Polish intellectuals . . . removed immediately," the population of Warsaw turned into slaves to produce for the Nazi economy, and Krakow rebuilt as a model German city.

Millions of Poles, Jews and non-Jews, were exterminated or shipped to slave-labour camps. Twenty per cent of the population died. Jagiellonian University was closed, and many of its professors were imprisoned, tortured or killed. Lolek's Jewish friends disappeared. At any hour of any day, the Gestapo could be at the door.

Wawel Cathedral and many parish churches were closed. More than 5,000 priests and nuns were killed or deported to labour camps. Catholic seminaries were closed and their students arrested or executed. Theatres were closed. Art collections were removed. Polish public life ceased to exist.

Lolek avoided being sent to a labour camp by getting a job -- through the help of a family friend -- as assistant dynamiter in a quarry. He joined the UNIA (Union) underground cultural-resistance movement and its Rhapsodic Theatre company -- directed by his high-school mentor, Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk -- whose members clandestinely performed nationalistic plays and epic poem recitations in private apartments.

On Feb. 18, 1941, he came home from work to find his father dead. He spent the night on his knees beside his body, praying, in tears. He told his friend, Julius Kydrynski: "I've never felt so alone."

He later wrote of sensing a "progressive detachment from my earlier plans" during the next 18 months. What he did -- bereft of family and country -- was turn to the church.

In autumn, 1942, the orphaned Wojtyla walked to the 17th-century residence of Krakow's archbishop Sapieha and asked to enter the priesthood, thus beginning a double life -- working at his job in the quarry, studying secretly for ordination.

On Feb. 29, 1944, he was hit by a German army vehicle and left for dead on the road. A passing German officer flagged down a lumber truck and directed the driver to take the unconscious man to hospital. He survived.

Regularly, with fellow underground seminarian Jerzy Zachuta, he went to the archbishop's residence to serve mass. In April, 1944, Jerzy Zachuta was arrested by the Gestapo and shot. One taken, the other not.

In August, 1944, when the Gestapo launched a wholesale roundup of Krakow's young men, they missed Karol Wojtyla, hiding behind a door.

To him, these all were signs of God's intentions for him. "In the designs of Providence," he said years later, "there are no mere coincidences."

After the Gestapo roundup, archbishop Sapieha gave Providence a helping hand. He summoned his secret seminarians to his residence and made them disappear.

The archbishop was a short man, of iron will, who kept dignitaries waiting while he visited a shelter for the homeless on returning from Rome after being appointed to his see. He was a leader with great natural authority, an icy patrician who treated the Nazi occupiers with contempt and issued baptismal certificates to Jews so they could escape the extermination camps. He became known as the uncrowned king of Poland. Each night at 9, he went for an hour into his chapel alone to discuss his problems with God.

He became a father figure to Karol Wojtyla, and the younger priest's role model when he himself became bishop of Krakow in 1958 and Pope 20 years later.

In January, 1945, the German occupation ended and the Russian-backed Communist dictatorship began. (Poles joke that they lost the Second World War twice.) Karol Wojtyla was ordained in 1946, and asked archbishop Sapieha's permission to become a Carmelite monk. The archbishop said no, and sent Father Wojtyla off to Rome to do a doctorate in theology.

He wanted young, intellectual, charismatic priests to engage with students in the new atheistic Communist Poland. The young were the archbishop's special flock and, in young Father Wojtyla, he had the superb shepherd. The 200 or so undergraduates who gathered around the priest became known as the Srodowisko ("the milieu," John Paul II calls it) or Rodzinka ("the little family"), and the bonds they formed with each other and with Karol Wojtyla have lasted until the present.

They followed him into the church and into the mountains to hike, ski and kayak. He was a lamp in the intellectual Communist gloom. He became intensely involved with their lives; he engaged them in discourse on spirituality and the innate nature of being human, on love and family life, on sex as the icon of the interior life of God. He wrote, in fact, a best-selling book on sex, Love and Responsibility.

The man's path from university chaplain to Vicar of Christ was meteoric: a bishop at 38, archbishop at 44, cardinal at 47, Pope at 58. He may have been Chi e? to the Roman crowd on St. Peter's Square, but not to the hierarchy of his church.

Certainly not Chi e? to his fellow cardinals, who knew him well as a favourite of Pope Paul VI; an impressive intellectual orator -- in impeccable Latin -- at Vatican II, the church's great reform council; a forceful and energetic participant at global bishops meetings; and a macho opponent of the governments of Communist Eastern Europe. Above all, they knew him as a demonstrable leader in the post-Vatican II turmoil.

And, as likely few of the cardinals knew, a rather strange human being.

He went to Rome in August, 1978, to elect Albino Luciani as pope -- John Paul I.Thirty-three days later, John Paul I was dead, and Karol Wojtyla sat down and wrote his last poem.

It was called Stanislaw. He wrote it, he said later, to pay "my debt to Krakow." It was about martyrdom as the source of Polish nationhood and unity and a model of the Christian vocation. George Weigel implies strongly that Karol Wojtyla knew what would happen when the cardinals next met in Rome.

They were psychologically traumatized by John Paul I's death. They took it as a sign from God to elect someone radically different. When it became evident in the Sistine Chapel who that person would be, Karol Wojtyla put his head in his hands, and the late Cardinal Basil Hume of England remembered feeling "desperately sad for the man."

John Paul II is profoundly more complex than the churned-out media images of a jet-setting, hand-clapping -- and now eternally dying -- Pole.

This has been no accidental man, no accidental Pope. All his actions as leader of the world's one billion Catholics flow from ideas and beliefs he held before his papacy began.

Martyrdom? Suffering? Divine intervention? It's as if John Paul knew that Mehmet Ali Agca, or someone like him, would one year be waiting with a Browning 9mm semi-automatic pistol on the anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin Mary at Fatima.

On May 13, 1981, Mr. Agca fired at point-blank range at John Paul on St. Peter's Square, but his bullet travelled an extraordinary trajectory, missing every vital organ, the spine and the aorta by a tiny fraction of an inch. It was a motherly hand that guided the bullet's path, the Pope said. Mr. Agca, a Muslim, later became frightened of the Virgin of Fatima.

His hard-wired connection to young people? It was palpable on an October morning in 1979, when tens of thousands of teenagers in Madison Square Garden chanted at him, "John Paul II, we love you!" and he strode to the microphone and shouted back: "Woo-hoo-woo, John Paul II, he loves you!" And it was all rooted in Srodowisko, and what biographer George Weigel calls his instinct for paternity.

He has a powerful sense of spiritual fatherhood: his own father, his powerful male mentors, his father-figure archbishop Sapieha and the father-God. Maybe this has moulded his views of the role of women in the church and what many Catholics believe is his paternalistic, authoritarian papacy.

Then again, that could be too simple.

He has developed a theological teaching on the separate but equal "Marian Church" of faith and disciples that makes possible the "Petrine Church" of office. To which many Western Catholics will respond: "Why bother?" George Weigel argues that the Pope's critics do not understand what he is trying to say.

The Polish church confronted the Nazis and Communists with a single authoritative voice, which is how John Paul II believes he is behaving as Pope -- authoritative, not authoritarian. (He once informed the hierarchy of Communist Hungary's not-authoritative-enough -- in his view -- church that he wouldn't visit Hungary "until the cardinal learned to bang on the table.")

It means he has a strong disinclination toward moral and theological pluralism. It means the notion of "loyal opposition" in the church does not appear on his theological map.

He thinks the concerns of Western Catholics with ordination of women, homosexuality and priestly celibacy are both petty and marginal in comparison with the great issues of human sacredness, human freedom, human dignity and faith.

His defenders say that, rather than being anti-collegial, no pope in modern history has consulted fellow bishops more. But Joaquim Navarro-Valls also points out: "When he's convinced of the truth of something, he goes ahead without any regard for whether people agree with him."

He presides over a church in which the Western bloc is almost in revolt against his papacy. He was indecipherably slow to respond to the American scandal of molesting priests. Yet he has spoken to the world as no pope has ever done.

He wrote, in Gift and Mystery, a charming book commemorating the 50th anniversary of his ordination: "I cannot refrain from asking myself some questions: Have you been a diligent and watchful master of the faith of the church? Have you set out to bring the people of today closer to the great work of the Second Vatican Council?

"Have you sought to satisfy the expectations of the believers in the church as well as the hunger for truth that is making itself felt in the world outside the church?"

The answers to those questions will depend on where the church goes after him.

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