Saint Pope John Paul II was born Karol Wojtyla on 18 May 1920 in the Polish town of Wadowice. Over the course of his life he became an unquestionable spiritual leader who inspired generations of believers and non-believers alike. Throughout his priesthood and papacy he made monumental gestures towards different faiths as the head of the Catholic Church. On this website, created specially for the centenary of John Paul's birth, a number of renowned speakers will share their memories of Pope's life and legacy in the historical, political and religious context.
The Pope's 26-years-long pontificate was marked by his greatly influential work on building peace, interfaith and ecumenical dialogue and the reconciliation between science and religion. John Paul II was also committed to supporting the elderly and the vulnerable both through personal contacts and through advocacy. This broadly understood dialogue determined the nature of the Pope's leadership and shaped the collective image of him among generations.
The concept of this endeavour alludes to the famous papal gatherings at Castle Gandolfo where intellectuals from different, sometimes opposed, backgrounds would exchange their opinions on contemporary issues. On this occasion, the figure of John Paul II is in the centre of the discussion. We invited several individuals representing different fields, i.e. the academia, literature, culture, politics, to share with us their firsthand experience of John Paul II's papacy in a series of short videos.
Patron of Culture
Krzysztof Zanussi, Film Director
While he was growing up, John Paul II showed an interest in theatre and poetry. He polished his acting skills in several amateur theatre productions. Eventually he joined Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk in founding the Rhapsodic Theatre, an underground cultural resistance against the Nazis during the occupation of Poland. Besides acting, John Paul II was an avid poet, continuing to write during his time as Pope. In 1999, the Vatican published a CD and video, Abbà Pater, in which John Paul II sings and recites his poems.
John Paul Il demonstrated his admiration for arts on many occasions. For example, in his famous speech at the headquarters of The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1980 he remarked: ’In this broad sense, culture includes all human creations, including human work’. His letter dedicated to artists from 1999 resonates even today, in the shadow of a global pandemic and economic crisis. Read the full letter here.
John Paul II emerged as one of the most influential interfaith figures of the twentieth century, expanding the Church’s inter-religious outreach to countries where Christianity was a minority religion. During his numerous pilgrimages, he met with leaders of other religions, and at the beginning of his pontificate, in 1981, he met with the Chief Rabbi in Rome. He also visited a synagogue and prayed at the Western Wall while in Jerusalem.
He formed similarly close bonds with Buddhists, meeting with the Dalai Lama several times. During his trip to Casablanca in 1985, John Paul II addressed the Muslim Youth and became the first pope in history to enter a mosque.
Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald, M. Afr.
Professor Richard Cooper, Master, St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford
From his early years to the Throne of Saint Peter, John Paul II demonstrated a particular interest in academic pursuit: He held two doctorates and was an avid writer. In his youth, he studied Polish philology at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. When the university was closed under Nazi occupation, John Paul II began studying to become a priest at a secret seminary run by the Archbishop of Krakow. After the war, he settled in Rome, where he worked on his doctoral thesis supervised by the eminent theologian Father Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP.
Upon his return to Poland, he continued to study philosophy and theology, becoming a professor at a seminary in Krakow and at the Catholic University in Lublin, where he eventually took up the Chair of Ethics. He lectured for 25 years before his election as the Pope in 1978.
The role of Pope John Paul II in the fall of communism was unprecedented. Poland was the country he visited the most, and his pilgrimages were widely supported by the Polish people. As the unquestionable authority and spiritual father of a whole generation, he gave hope and set the path for many to follow.
The Pope’s first three pilgrimages to his homeland in the 1970s and 1980s contributed significantly to tearing down the system that violated political freedom and freedom of thought.
Professor Norman Davies, Historian
Visit of John Paul II to the Parliament of the Republic of Poland. June 11, 1999 (Photo by Sejm RP/Public Domain)
Faith & Science
Lord John Alderdice, Politician
During his time as a Bishop, John Paul II used to meet with scientists from various fields, physicists, physicians and philosophers, listening to their discussions. He constantly followed the development of the humanities and sciences. This tradition continued in the form of Castle Gandolfo gatherings, where intellectuals and scientists met to discuss the latest issues.
In his teaching, the Pope showed that there is no contradiction between scientific findings and faith, but these two realities complement each other. He clearly expressed this in the first words of the encyclical, Fides et Ratio, writing that 'Faith and reason (Fides et ratio) are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to contemplate the truth'.
Phenomenon of Polish Pope
The 26-year pontificate left an indelible impression on the history of the 20th century, marking out new paths for the Church and, to some extent, for the whole world.
The generation of people who were shaped by the pontificate of the Polish Pope was named the JP2 generation.
George Weigel, JPII's Biographer
Pope of Dialogue
© 2020 by The Centre For The Thought of John Paul II