Karol Jozef Wojtyla was a towering force"> globeandmail.com: Showman, mystic, philosopher

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Showman, mystic, philosopher

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In 1942, Karol Wojtyla, then working as an assistant dynamiter in a quarry, walked to the residence of Krakow's Archbishop Adam Stefan Sapieha and asked to enter the priesthood.

The archbishop was known as the uncrowned king of Poland. He was an icy patrician who possessed great natural authority. He once kept dignitaries waiting while he visited a homeless shelter. He treated the Nazi occupiers with contempt. He issued baptismal certificates to Jews so they could escape the death camps.

Each night at 9, he shut himself in his chapel for a private conversation with God about his problems.

He became Karol's surrogate father, mentor and role model.

The third great influence on the young man's life was Jan Tyranowski, a tailor, lay activist in the church, and mystic.

He introduced the young Wojtyla 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," whereby the soul, strengthened and purified by faith and shed of the dominance of earthly pleasure and satisfaction, achieves contemplation and 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 sense and knowledge of human existence.

Karol himself engaged in meditative prayer, often prostrate on the floor with his arms at right angles in the shape of the cross, entering into what he called his "audience with God," a world beyond language. His spokesman, Dr. Navarro-Valls, frequently told journalists that it was the Pope's meditative powers that enabled him to triumph over his diseased and weakened body.

With the defeat of the Nazis and their replacement by the Russian-backed Communists in Poland, Archbishop Sapieha wanted young, intellectual, charismatic priests to engage with students in the new atheistic Communist state.

He had the perfect priest in young Father Wojtyla, who gathered 200 undergraduates around him calling themselves the Srodowisko ("the milieu") or Rodzinka ("the little family").

They followed him into the church to meet God and their own souls, into the mountains to hike, ski and kayak. He was their intellectual lamp. He engaged them on spirituality and on the nature of being human, on love and family life, on sex as the icon of the interior life of God. He wrote a bestselling book on sex, entitled Love and Responsibility.

His path from university chaplain in Krakow to the See of Rome was breathtaking: a bishop at 38, archbishop at 44, cardinal at 47. And when, at 58, he was elected pope, it may have been a surprise to the crowd in St. Peter's Square — but not to Cardinal Wojtyla or the hierarchy of his church.

As the dazzling intellectual of Vatican II — the great 1960s reform council of the church — and the right-hand adviser of Paul VI, the Polish cardinal who was fluent in seven languages was anything but unknown.

He entered his papacy with the constitution of a horse and the energy of a freight train.

He was determined, through his own evangelism, to bring spirituality and the church in from the margins of a secular and materialistic world, to bring sunlight of hope and love to what he called the 20th century's "culture of death."

When he began his globetrotting, he had no real plan behind it.

"With the passing of time," he later said, "I found these travels more and more useful in developing policies. My presence in a particular country added a direct witness, something that was immediately understandable.

"To speak about peace in Hiroshima, for example, was to give a thousand times more meaning to the message."

In the romance of the millennial year — 2000 — he visited St. Catherine's monastery in the Sinai desert where Moses purportedly received the Ten Commandments from God, and he prayed in Jerusalem at the Western Wall of the Second Temple, the holiest site of Judaism.

He was three times in Canada: for a 12-day tour in 1984, a more brief visit in 1987, and a trip to Toronto in 2002 to preside over his church's World Youth Day.

George Weigel ends his biography of John Paul with a story.

Two long-time members of the Srodowisko are staying at the Pope's summer home in Castel Gandolfo. Their bedroom is just below his. Before dawn each day, they hear his cane thump-thumping across the floor. One morning at breakfast, they ask him why he gets up so early.

Because, said the leader of one billion Catholics, "I like to watch the sun rise."

Michael Valpy is The Globe and Mail's religion and ethics reporter.

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