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The Life and Times of John Paul II and Lech Walesa

Updated on September 14, 2012

Man of the People

In 1978, the world met a man of unlikely origins. The newest pope, Karol Woytla, was well known and loved in his homeland. Overall, his nationality came as a big surprise. Weren't the majority of Catholic Popes of Italian or at least Mediterranean heritage?

The man, Karol Wojtyla, was a wholly unheard of candidate outside of his immediate circle. To date, he is the only pope of Polish or Slavic heritage.

As a young man, and sole survivor of his family during World War II, he lost his true love to the Gestapo in Poland.

After her death (or perhaps murder) and being a religious man, he decided to serve God and the people by becoming a priest. Perhaps his greatest attribute, from his ascension to cardinal, bishop, arch-bishop and pope, was that he always remained a man of the people.

Travel and visiting

His main focus was to communicate and make contact - two way contact - with the people. He wanted to feel their spirit, encourage them, and leave them refreshed. Formality, authority and rhetoric bored him.

Political activist.

His first trip was to Mexico little after he became pope. This was an unexpected move. Mexico has many Catholics, and the political situation is very anti-Catholic. Nonetheless, he visited Mexico, riding through the streets and addressing the people.

His next trip was to Poland. He suspected that he would not have much opportunity to return to the homeland that he missed.The festival of St. Stanislav in May was a very significant time for Poles. He was allowed to visit Poland, but not for this holiday. The government (these were during Iron Curtain times) felt that the pope might align with the working poor who were underfed and obviously oppressed. The pope compromised as far as the date was concerned. But he was more than ready to support the people.

Lech Walesa and his beloved Poland

Solidarity is formed

Solidarity, the famous Polish labor union, was formed with Lech Walesa at the head. For the pope's next visit he was pressured to not engaged in his scheduled meeting with Walesa. The pope stood firm. If he could not speak with the Lech Walesa, he said, he would return immediately to Rome from the airport. The authorities backed down, and the meeting took place. A special room had been prepared, but the Pope and Lech Walesa met in the hallway, thus meeting in privacy.

In December 1981, Moscow ordered tanks into Poland. Martial Law had arrived! The world was in panic. Some though that Solidarity had been a mistake. The Pope, however, stated that the regime was on its last legs. In July 1983, Martial Law ended. Although it took another three years for Poland to become a democracy, the people had truly won, in spite of incredible odds.

The labor union's trademark
The labor union's trademark

Martial Law Declared in Poland - 1981

A Mission of Goodwill toward Humankind

Visit to Croatia.

In the Church's 2000 year history, Pope John Paul II was the first Catholic pope to set foot in Croatia. He was gracious, addressing the crowd saying that he too was "Croatian" since the Poles and Croatians lived together in the northern region bordering Poland and Slovenia (called "white Croatia") before making way south to the Balkan Peninsula in the 6th century A.D.  The pope made two more trips to Croatia, in 2003 and in 2007.

John Paul brought a fatherly feel to the Vatican. His care and attention to detail could not be dismissed. He cared about everyone. This feeling of penetrating, seeing all, noticing all, determining that all people around him were secure - was a constant theme in his presence. He was truly loved, because he loved all of those around him. He did not know how to do otherwise.

Pope John Paul II in Croatia (first time)

I hope it is not too presumptuous to say, I see a definite resemblance between Pope John Paul and my own father, Michael Joseph Kingsley.  So much so that when we saw the pope on TV I'd tell my kids - he looks exactly like your grandfather (did).  Not exactly twin brothers but the resemblance is something like "first cousins". After all, both have Slavic origins.


How the Pope got his Name

His name is derived from the names his predecessors. John the XXIII and Pope Paul. The former was known for organizing Second Vatican Council in 1962 and making huge changes in the church. One of those changes was that the priest faced the congregation instead of standing with his back to the people. (The logic behind this had been that "we are all praying to God together" but it was a rude posture to assume - all you saw was the priest's back!). He also insisted that the church use the language of the people in the region where the mass was being held - be it English, Italian, Spanish or whatever - not only Latin, as had been the practice since the Church's inception. Pope John XXIII was also know for his discreetly executed humanitarian actions, including protecting Jewish orphans during World War II. One story was that a group of orphan boys were on the verge of being rounded up and surrendered to the Gestapo. He had them baptized and then informed the Gestapo that these were Catholic boys and they had been misinformed. Of course, they retained their Jewish heritage, but in this fashion, the Pope saved their lives.

The name Paul refers to Pope Paul who was a famous scholar. Poor Pope Paul got a negative reputation because he was against birth control in the 1970s, which has remained a touchy issue in the Church.

This was his aim - to combine the intellect with the heart, which is the aim of any good leader. Without wisdom, ones actions will be foolish. Without study and action, a life of simply theory leads nowhere. Throughout his 1978-2005 papal term, he seemed to exemplify the combination of these virtues.

John Paul II's predecessor, John Paul I was an Italian who lived an extremely short time after becoming Pope. It was he who made this combination of the two Popes' names, and Pope John Paul II continued in similar fashion.


When he first became pope in 1978, he graciously assumed the positioning, apologizing for his "bad Italian". Humility was one of his trademarks. Soon after, he realized he was saying mass to a nearly empty church. So, he began inviting the nuns and other priests to come to mass. They wondered if this was a joke - "could it be possible that the pope himself is inviting me to attend mass?" they thought. He was absolutely sincere. "I don't want to be alone up there", he reasoned. After a time, they began to line up at the door.

But for most of his life, John Paul truly was alone. In the ceremony in which he became a Catholic priest, he was completely alone without anyone to stand in pride at his achievement. Like graduation without a party afterwards. His mother, father, sister and brother had all died in the war. There was no one left. Although surrounded by a huge group of friends, first in Poland and later at the Vatican, he was somehow always "alone". He immersed himself in prayer and action, always fighting against egoism, abuses of power, and formality without substance.

He developed a close friendship with Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, his predecessor. The former and the latter were independent thinkers, which he very much valued. This shows his greatness as a leader - he wanted truth, not flattery.

He was known to eat whatever food was prepared for him. He did, however, have a fondness for dessert and coffee. Pilgrims sometimes brought him sweets from his homeland of Krakow. "How did you manage it?" he would ask them.

He was also known to "get out of town". The driver would cover his head with a cape, and using an unmarked car, take him to a beautiful scenic destination. "It IS possible", he would muse, to return to the countryside that he missed. This repose helped him to find a balance and contemplation out of the spotlight that he sometimes disliked. He was after all, a spiritual and private man. Getting out helped him to recharge his batteries.

Pope Benedict XVI

Assassination attempts

John Paul II had openly supported the people, especially his fellow Poles fighting in the Solidarity movement. He had rocked the boat, and the aftermath was sure to follow. The first, and most infamous assassination attempt occurred on May 13, 1981 by Mehmet Ali Agca, a Bulgarian of Turkish heritage. Commissioned by the Bulgarian Secret Service, the attack was ordered from Moscow, since the Pope had given the Polish workers courage to stand up to the Iron Curtain. This kind of behavior was a serious threat to the entire Eastern Block and an assassination was planned.

Four automatic weapon shots were fired, two lodging into the Popes intestines, one in his hand and the other in his shoulder. The shooter himself asked the pope at a later time "How did you survive?"

Rushed to the hospital in Rome, there was some confusion and the attendants first prepared to take him to his private suite. An alert aide rushed him to the emergency ward for an immediate operation. It was reported that the pope lost over 70% of his total blood supply. However, the blood transfusion was not successful - his body rejected the blood being infused. At this point, the doctors doing the surgery donated their own blood, which was successfully assimilated into the pope's body. If this action had not been taken, he would have died that fateful day in 1981, but after a 5 hour operation, he managed to pull through.

The pope attached deep significance to the date of May 13 which was the same day that the Virgin Mary had appeared to some shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal. He felt that Mary had saved him from a premature death.

One year later, after a full recovery, Pope John Paul II made a pilgrimage to Fatima, to pray in appreciation that his life had been spared. Exactly one year to the day of his first assassination attempt, another attempt was made on his life. A Catholic priest (who later left the church) concealed a bayonet in his robes, stabbing the pope in 1982. The pope said nothing. His attending priests noticed blood emerging from John Paul's robes. He was again admitted to the hospital, but the entire incident was kept fairly hush-hush. "I don't want the people to feel fear" he explained, "regarding my life being in danger."

Forgiving Ali Agca

Friendship and Forgiveness

Pope John Paul actually forgave his assassin as he rode in the ambulance to the hospital. If we cannot forgive our brothers and sisters, how can we face the Father? he queried.

Over the years, he asked the Turkish government to forgive Ali Agca's prison sentence and kept in touch with Mehmet Ali Agca's mother. The man clearly walked the talk of living the life of a humanitarian and leader. Now on the road to sainthood, regardless of religious views, Pope John Paul II was clearly a great leader, and his positioning under political pressure can give us all hope and a great example of what it means to show courage, make a difference, and truly create peace.


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    • Charity Squid profile image

      Charity Squid 6 years ago

      Beautiful Hub! There has never been such a beloved pope like John Paul II. I really miss him on this earth!

    • EuroCafeAuLait profile image

      Anastasia Kingsley 6 years ago from Croatia, Europe

      Thank you for the very kind and gracious compliment.

    • richmcneil profile image

      richmcneil 6 years ago from US

      Your writing is vivid and engaging. You gave a very personable view of the man that was John Paul. I am a fan

    • EuroCafeAuLait profile image

      Anastasia Kingsley 6 years ago from Croatia, Europe

      Thank you, from the bottom of my heart! Just by watching how he lived, I feel that I knew him well. Thanks for following my work, I am also following yours! *Bye!*

    • Scarface1300 profile image

      Scarface1300 6 years ago

      What a fabulous piece of work.

      Such a lovely insight to a lovely man.

      I didn't know for instance about his first true love.

      Thank you for this hub. I loved it.

      Applause from me and voted up.

      I will follow you closely from now on.