As all of his biographers remind us, Karol Wojtyla came of age at one of the darkest moments of the twentieth century. When he was 19 years old and just commencing his university career, the Nazis rolled through his native Poland and instigated a reign of terror over the country. Almost immediately, the conquerors decapitated Polish society, killing the intelligentsia outright or sending them to concentration camps. All distinctive forms of Polish culture were cruelly suppressed, and the church was actively persecuted. Young Wojtyla displayed heroic courage by joining the underground seminary run by the Cardinal of Krakow and by forming a small company of players who kept Polish literature and drama alive. Many of his colleagues in both of these endeavors were killed or arrested in the course of those terrible years of occupation. Sadly, the Nazi tyranny was replaced immediately by the Communist tyranny, and Fr. Wojtyla was compelled to manifest his courage again. In the face of harassment, unfair criticism, the threat of severe punishment, etc., he did his priestly work, forming young people in the great Catholic spiritual and theological tradition.
Even as a bishop, Wojtyla was subject to practically constant surveillance (every phone tapped; every room bugged; his every movement tracked), and he was continually, in small ways and large, obstructed by Communist officialdom. And yet he soldiered on. Of course, as Pope, he ventured into the belly of the beast, standing athwart the Communist establishment and speaking for God, freedom, and human rights. In doing so, he proved himself one of the most courageous figures of the twentieth century.
That Karol Wojtyla was a man who exhibited the virtue of justice to a heroic degree is impossible to contest. Throughout his papal years, John Paul II was the single most eloquent and persistent voice for human rights on the world stage. In the face of a postmodern relativism and indifferentism, John Paul took the best of the Enlightenment political tradition and wedded it to classical Christian anthropology. The result was a sturdy defense of the rights to life, liberty, education, free speech, and above all, the free exercise of religion. More persuasively than any other political figure, east or west, John Paul advocated for justice.
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