Next year, 2020, will see the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most remarkable men of our times.
In today’s West, it is almost standard to assume that anyone whose life has been marked by difficulty, loss, or tragedy should be viewed primarily through the lens of that victim status. For young Karol Wojtyla, born in middle Europe in 1920, the lens was missing: he never saw himself as a victim. His mother died when he was a small child, his older brother a short while later. He lived in a two-room apartment with his father on the latter’s small Army pension. When, as a young man, he went to study at Krakow he lost, within 12 months, his university (closed by the Nazis), his country (invaded), and his father (who died of natural causes in the first winter of the War). By the end of his teens, he had lost all his immediate family and was working in a stone quarry under the forced-labour laws of the Nazi regime.
But his lens was that of the Church—trusting in God, devoted to Mary with a specific form of knightly chivalry which he would later seek to share with the world, encircled with friends, and intellectually stimulated and challenged by each new turning-point.
During his pontificate, a number of films were made of his life: it was irresistible with that mix of wartime underground theatre, secret training as a priest, post-war work in Communist Poland, participation in Vatican II, and then election to the papacy. There were also of course a great many books, of which only a few really caught the spirit of the man, while some missed his message entirely and lamented his orthodoxy on sexual ethics, his “old-fashioned” Marian devotion, his insistence on doctrinal truth, and his Eucharistic focus.
He redrew the map of Europe: his triumphant return to Poland in 1979 began a series of events that culminated in the collapse of the Iron Curtain. He gave us World Youth Day, the Theology of the Body, and a revival of devotion to the Rosary, to which he added a new set of Mysteries to round out the commemoration of our redemption. He travelled the world on missionary journeys that drew millions, breaking records for attendance at crowd events (seven million at one Mass in the Philippines). In his pontificate, we got the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a fully updated Canon Law, a vast array of new saints—more than had ever been canonised before in history—and devotion to the Divine Mercy. He oversaw restoration of the Sistine Chapel, and led a profound systematic penitence and renewal for the Church leading up to the millennium. He skied, he swam, he went on mountain hikes. He came to Britain and had tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, cementing a new relationship with Britain after a 400-year-old break.
He survived two assassination attempts, the first of which nearly succeeded when he was shot at point-blank range in St Peter’s Square by a trained gunman, the second an unsuccessful stabbing in Fatima by a priest of an extreme traditionalist group.
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