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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

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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).

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