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Pope John Paul II
Main | Biography | Successors | Selection Process | Photo Essay
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The early years: an unhappy childhood

the early years

by John Christensen

(CNN) -- Before he became the Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, Successor of St. Peter, Prince of Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Sovereign of Vatican City and the only pope featured in a comic book -- Marvel doing the honor in 1983 -- Pope John Paul II was Karol Jozef Wojtyla.

Friends in Wadowice, a town of 8,000 Catholics and 2,000 Jews 35 miles southwest of Krakow, called Wojtyla "Lolek." Lolek was born in 1920, the second son of Karol Wojtyla (voy TIH wah) Sr., a retired army officer and tailor, and Emilia Kaczorowska Wojtyla, a schoolteacher of Lithuanian descent.

The Wojtylas were strict Catholics, but did not share the anti-Semitic views of many Poles. One of Lolek's playmates was Jerzy Kluger, a Jew who many years later would play a key role as a go-between for John Paul II and Israeli officials when the Vatican extended long-overdue diplomatic recognition to Israel.

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Kluger told The New York Times that he spent many afternoons sitting in the kitchen next to the Wojtylas' coal stove listening to Lolek's father tell stories about Greece, Rome and Poland.

Lolek, in turn, went to the Klugers' 10-room apartment overlooking the town square and listened to music performed by a string quartet composed of two Jews and two Catholics.

"The people in the Vatican do not know Jews, and previous popes did not know Jews," Kluger told the Times. "But this pope is a friend of the Jewish people because he knows Jewish people."

Indeed, Wojtyla became the first pope to visit a synagogue and the first to visit the memorial at Auschwitz to victims of the Holocaust. In ending the Catholic-Jewish estrangement, he called Jews "our elder brothers."

Not a happy childhood

FACTOID
 

John Paul II is possibly the most athletic Pope in history. In his youth, he played soccer as a goal-keeper, took daring swims in the flooded Skawa River, and enjoyed skiing, hiking, mountain climbing and kayaking

 

As a schoolboy, Wojtyla was both an excellent student and an athlete who skied, hiked, kayaked and swam in the Skawa River. But death hovered over the family, making itself felt first when an infant sister died before Lolek was born.

It struck again in 1929 when his mother died of heart and kidney problems, just a month before Lolek's 9th birthday. And when he was 12, Lolek's 26-year-old brother Edmund, a physician in the town of Bielsko, died of scarlet fever.

Lolek, himself, had two near-misses with mortality in his youth. He was hit once by a streetcar and again by a truck in 1944 while a college student. The injuries left the otherwise robust pope -- 5-foot-10 1/2 inches, 175 pounds in his prime -- with a slight stoop to his shoulders that is particularly noticeable when he is tired.

"The pope's youth wasn't happy," Father Joseph Vandrisse, a former French missionary and now a journalist, told TIME magazine. "He has meditated a lot on the meaning of suffering..."

Even as an adult he has been beset by physical difficulties, including a dislocated shoulder, a broken thigh that led to femur-replacement surgery, the removal of a precancerous tumor from his colon and an attempt on his life by a gunman whose two bullets wounded the pope in the abdomen, right arm and left hand.

Lolek and his father lived in a Spartan, one-room apartment behind the church, and the father devoted himself to raising his son. He sewed Lolek's clothes and had the boy study in a chilly room to toughen him and develop his concentration.

"He tried to develop the same discipline in his son that he instilled in his soldiers," one of Lolek's childhood friends told People magazine.

But the father didn't forget about play. A friend remembers entering the Wojtylas' apartment and finding father and son playing soccer with a ball made of rags.

Poetry, religion and theater

Wojtyla's passions in those early years were poetry, religion and the theater. After graduating from secondary school in 1938, he and his father moved to Krakow where he enrolled at Jagiellonian University to study literature and philosophy.

He also joined an experimental theater group and participated in poetry readings and literary discussion groups. Friends say he was an intense and gifted actor, and a fine singer.

After the Germans invaded Poland, he escaped deportation and imprisonment in late 1940 by taking a job as a stone cutter in a quarry.

A few months later, in February of 1941, Wojtyla's 61-year-old father died, leaving his dream of seeing his son commit to the priesthood unfulfilled. The pope has said that his father once told him, "I will not live long and would like to be certain before I die that you will commit yourself to God's service."

It was another 18 months, however, before Wojtyla began studying at an underground seminary in Krakow and registered for theology courses at the university.

He continued his studies, acted and worked in a chemical plant until August of 1944. But when the Germans began rounding up Polish men, Wojtyla took refuge in the archbishop of Krakow's residence, and remained there until the end of the war.

He was ordained in 1946 in Krakow, and spent much of the next few years studying -- he earned two masters degrees and a doctorate -- before taking up priestly duties as an assistant pastor in Krakow in 1949.

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