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The pope who guided the Church into the new millennium

Blessed John Paul II (CNS)

The much-loved Polish pope will be canonised next spring, less than a decade after his death. Karol Wojtyła’s story was in many ways that of the Church in the 20th century. He lived under the false gods of National Socialism and Communism, eventually triumphing over both.

Although his pontificate coincided with a profound crisis in western Christianity, across the developing world Catholicism grew rapidly. He guided the Church firmly into the new millennium.

He was born in Wadowice, near Kraków, in 1920, the youngest of three children of Karol and Emilia Wojtyła. A doctor reportedly advised Emilia to have an abortion, insisting that she would not give birth to a live child. But, of course, she refused.

Emilia died when Karol was just eight and, along with the premature deaths of his sister and brother, this would deeply affect him. His father died in 1941. And so, he later reflected, by 20 he had lost his entire close family.

When the Second World War broke out Karol worked as a manual labourer in a limestone quarry, among other jobs. He also saved the lives of a number of Jewish people from the Nazis.

The occupiers left on January 17 1945 and Karol was among the first to enter the ruins of the seminary in order to rebuild it. He was ordained on All Saint’s Day 1946. After studying in Rome he taught theology at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and the Catholic University of Lublin. Pius XII made him an auxiliary bishop in 1958. He played a decisive role at the Second Vatican Council, contributing to two of the Council’s most significant documents, Dignitatis Humanae, the Decree on Religious Freedom, and Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

On October 16 1978 he became the first non-Italian elected to the papacy in 455 years. His election was a huge surprise and a great boost to the Polish people, then undergoing a national crisis that would culminate, in 1989, with the overthrow of Communism across eastern Europe.

His first trip to Poland in June 1979 illustrated to the country’s totalitarian rulers that the country’s Catholic faith was as unshakeable as ever.

At least a million Poles are expected to make the journey to Rome for the canonisation of John Paul II on Divine Mercy Sunday 2014 – a feast the pope himself instituted in the year 2000.