The Young Karol Wojtyla
By Deacon Keith Fournier (www.catholiconline.org)
On May 18, 1920, during the month traditionally dedicated to Mary the Mother of the Lord, one of her greatest treasures for the Church of her Son was born in the town of Wodowice, 35 miles southwest of Krakow Poland. The world would later receive him as Pope John Paul II. His name was Karol (Polish for Karl or Charles) Josef Wojtyla. His hometown had about 10,000 residents, roughly 8,000 Catholics and 2,000 Jews. He was given a nickname by his friends, “Lolek.”
Karol was Baptized into Christ and His Church on June 20, 1920 by a Chaplain in the Polish Army, Fr. Franciszek Zak. Karol was the son of a Polish Army Lieutenant also named Karol, a tailor by trade. Karol’s mother Emilia, was a schoolteacher. He had an older brother named Edmund and sister named Olga. His brother became a Doctor in the town of Bielsko. Sadly, his sister died before Karol was born.
The Wojtylas were faithful Catholics. They rejected the growing anti-Semiticism among some Poles in that troubled time. One of young Karol’s friends was Jerzy Kluger. He later recalled playing soccer with Karol. The teams were divided between Catholics and Jews. However, given the disparity in numbers, he recounts that young Karol would volunteer to play on the Jewish team in order to make the game more competitive and even out the odds.
This friendship lasted for a lifetime. Jerzy later participated in the dialogue which led to the extension of the Vatican’s diplomatic recognition of the State of Israel. A special love for the Jewish people took root in young Karol. It was demonstrated dramatically during his Papacy when he visited the Central Synagogue of Rome and condemned anti-Semitism “at any time and by anyone.” It was prophetically proclaimed in actions upon his visit to Auschwitz to honor the victims of the Holocaust. He was fond of regularly referring to the Jewish people as “our elder brothers” and taught the whole Church to do the same.
Young Karol lost his mother a month before his ninth birthday. She died of heart and kidney problems. When he was only 12 years old his brother the Doctor died of scarlet fever. A childhood friend named Szczepan Mogielnicki told one news source that “he lost his childhood at 12, when he lost his brother… There was no youthful folly in him. Even when he played sports, he was very concentrated, but of course, he had a lot of passion. He was a very noble person, and he expressed things in a very noble way, but there was no folly.” Father Karol and son Karol lived in a one room apartment behind the parish church.
The elder Karol sewed his sons clothing and watched over his studies. He taught him to be self disciplined and to work hard. He was deeply devoted to raising the son he loved. Another friend recalls entering the small apartment and finding father and son playing soccer with a ball made of rags. Karol credited his Catholic faith to the influence of his beloved father. The Church was a vital part of their life as a family. He made his First Holy Communion at age 9, they practiced their Catholic faith in the home and Karol was confirmed at 18. Upon graduation from Marcin Wadowita high school in Wadowice, he enrolled in Krakow’s Jagiellonian University in 1938 and in a school for drama.
Seeds of the Priestly Vocation and Response to the Call
During his early schooling young Karol Wojtyla participated in his first theatrical performances. His lifelong love for the theater and all of the arts was born. He began writing poetry. He performed in his first student theatrical productions. He began the study of Greek, was elected president of the Sodality of Mary, and made his first pilgrimage to Czestochowa, home of the Image of Our Lady of Czestochowa.
It was also during this time that he impressed Adam Cardinal Sapieha, the Archbishop of Krakow. According to his friend Fr. Mieczyslaw Malinski, Karol’s skill as a speaker caught the Archbishops attention when he visited the young man’s school. Karol had been chosen to give the welcoming speech – and he did so with great skill. The Archbishop asked the pastor of the parish whether young Karol had considered the priesthood. He was told that Karol had his heart set on pursuing an acting career in the theatre.
In 1987, Pope John Paul II shared these thoughts with young people in Los Angeles, “I am often asked, especially by young people, why I became a priest. Maybe some of you would like to ask the same question. Let me try briefly to reply. I must begin by saying that it is impossible to explain entirely. For it remains a mystery, even to myself. How does one explain the ways of God? Yet, I know that, at a certain point in my life, I became convinced that Christ was saying to me what he had said to thousands before me: ‘Come, follow me!’
“There was a clear sense that what I heard in my heart was no human voice, nor was it just an idea of my own. Christ was calling me to serve him as a priest. And you can probably tell that I am deeply grateful to God for my vocation to the priesthood. Nothing means more to me or gives me greater joy that to celebrate Mass each day and to serve God’s people in the Church. That has been true ever since the day of my ordination as a priest. Nothing has ever changed this, not even becoming Pope.”
When Karol enrolled in Jagiellonian University in the fall of 1938 he first entered the school of philosophy. He also joined “Studio 38” an “experimental” theatre group where he continued acting. Events in Poland intervened in his life and interrupted his formal studies. However, nothing would interrupt his continued pursuit of learning. The troops of the National Socialists of Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland in 1939. They quickly overtook the ill prepared Polish army.
Among the many immediate acts of aggression undertaken by the Nazis was to close the University. Young Karol took a job in 1940 as a stone-cutter at a quarry in Zakrzowek, near Krakow. He later worked in the Solvay chemical factory to earn a living and avoid being deported to Germany. However, it was during those dark days that the seed of his priestly vocation was being watered and the light of his growing faith began to illuminate the path he would take in response to God’s call.
During this time Karol Wojtyla came to know Jan Tryanowski, a young Catholic layman and youth leader at St. Stanislaus Kostka parish in the 1940s. That was Karol’s university parish. During the Nazi occupation, priests were at a minimum. This young layman Jan had an extraordinary impact on Karol’s life. He may have also contributed to the future Pope’s lifelong conviction concerning the call of the lay faithful to fully participate in the mission of the Church. During his later participation in the Second Vatican Council and throughout his pontificate, he would be a champion of the universal call to holiness and the vital apostolate of the lay faithful.
This tailor Jan Tryanowski was a mystic, a man of deep prayer, who studied the writings of St John of the Cross and spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila with great intensity. Initially, young Karol was not all that impressed with Tryanowski. However, the Holy Spirit was unfolding a plan in young Karol’s life. He became increasingly drawn to the tailor’s interior life of prayer and deep real world aith. Tryanowski became a mentor to Karol. His influence helped to set the future Pope on a path which not only changed him but would change the whole world through him. Jan Tryanowski taught Karol about union with God and the call to abandon all to follow Jesus.
Now we call that tailor, the Servant of God Jan Tryanowski and his own cause for canonization is underway. Then, among his other youth outreaches, Tryanowski had formed a “Living Rosary” group. From that group many priestly and religious vocations emerged, including that of the young Karol Wojtyla. Years later Archbishop Karol Wojtyla wrote of the influence Jan Tyranowski had upon him:
“He was one of those unknown saints, hidden amid the others like a marvelous light at the bottom of life, at a depth where night usually reigns. He disclosed to me the riches of his inner life, of his mystical life. In his words, in his spirituality and in the example of a life given to God alone, he represented a new world that I did not yet know. I saw the beauty of a soul opened up by grace.”
In 1942, the seeds of his priestly vocation had taken deep root. Aware of his call to the priesthood, Karol Wojtyla made the choice to began courses in the underground seminary of Krakow. It was being run by Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha, the Archbishop of Krakow. However, Karol continued his acting, writing, and poetry. He became one of the pioneers of the “Rhapsodic Theatre”. It, like seminary formation, was also forced underground by the Nazi occupation. This connection between the beauty of the Arts and the Christian vocation became a continuing theme of Karol Wojtyla. In one of his least known Papal letters entitled a “Letter to Artists” Pope John Paul would write of “vocation” of artists to create “Epiphanies of Beauty.”
After the Second World War the seminarian Karol Wojtyla entered the re-opened major seminary in Krakow. He also enrolled once again at Jagiellonian University to study theology. He was ordained to the diaconate and then to the priesthood by Archbishop Sapieha in Krakow on November 1, 1946. His intelligence and aptitude for further study became clear to the Archbishop, by then elevated to Cardinal. He sent Fr Karol Wojtyla to Rome to study and work under one of the great scholars and spiritual writers of the Church, the French Dominican, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange.