John Paul II

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John Paul II

Janusz Poniewierski Download PDF
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We all know children’s dreams of greatness, for example, imagining that each soldier carries a marshal’s baton in his schoolbag. “So,” thinks a child, “I could also be such a soldier and become a general in the future, couldn’t I? And the story of the ugly duckling which turns into a swan from the tale by Andersen could be my story, too?”

These children’s dreams and life plans often fail to fulfil and they only remain in the sphere of dreams as an illusion confronted with harsh reality. Sometimes, however, the dream does come true. A shoeblack becomes a millionaire and a modest boy from a small town of Wadowice becomes the Pope. Even more: a moral authority for the contemporary world. Or even a mythical hero, the “Spirit King”, of whom this song was sung: “shall distribute love like rulers distribute weapons today,/ his sacramental power shall he reveal/ taking the world in hand” (Król-duch [The Spirit King], Juliusz Słowacki) [translator’s note: free translation].
This boy from Wadowice was Karol Wojtyła…

135 film folding camera Archdiocesan Museum in Krakow (Muzeum Archidiecezjalne w Krakowie)

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Portrait of Emilia Wojtyła Family Home of John Paul II Museum in Wadowice (Muzeum Dom Rodzinny Ojca Świętego Jana Pawła II w Wadowicach)

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Initially, there was nothing indicating that Karol Wojtyła would become a priest. His pre-maturely deceased mother did have such dreams; however, Karol did not plan on it. A story was told years later that in 1927 – when the American aviator Charles Lindbergh took the lonely flight across the Atlantic – seven-year old Karol was asked:
“Who would you like to be?”
“I will be an aviator,” answered the boy.
“Why not a priest?”
“Because a Pole can become the second Lindbergh, but cannot be the Pope.”
(After: Kwiatki Jana Pawła II (The Flowers of John Paul II), Krakow 2002 – free translation)
Skis, poles Family Home of John Paul II Museum in Wadowice (Muzeum Dom Rodzinny Ojca Świętego Jana Pawła II w Wadowicach)

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Sneakers Family Home of John Paul II Museum in Wadowice (Muzeum Dom Rodzinny Ojca Świętego Jana Pawła II w Wadowicach)

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Maturity certificate (secondary school leaving certificate) of Karol Wojtyła Family Home of John Paul II Museum in Wadowice (Muzeum Dom Rodzinny Ojca Świętego Jana Pawła II w Wadowicach)

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Karol liked sports, especially football. He learned well, and when his final exam was approaching, he developed an interest in literature and theatre. Therefore, when it came to choose his life path, he seemed devoid of doubts: he chose the Jagiellonian University, Polish philology and was planning to become an actor in the future.
Portrait of Karol Wojtyła - senior Family Home of John Paul II Museum in Wadowice (Muzeum Dom Rodzinny Ojca Świętego Jana Pawła II w Wadowicach)

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Karol might have as well become an outstanding artist, man of the theatre. And yet this did not happen – Karol chose priesthood.
Numerous factors contributed to this, the most important of which will remain a mystery. The faithful see an act of God here and call it a vocation. But there were also other circumstances behind this choice. In the case of Wojtyła, an important role in the process of his maturation to priesthood was played by the death of his father (also, several years earlier his mother and only brother died) and the sense of loneliness caused by this tragic event. Equally significant were the experiences of war and a deep crisis of values. Many young people felt then that the response to this crisis should be the sacrifice of their own lives. To sacrifice oneself – to God and to other people.
Karol Wojtyła followed the path of Adam Chmielowski – Saint Brother Albert. This outstanding painter abandoned art so as to live among the poorest. He not only wanted to help them, but also to share their fate – as their brother.
Cassock Family Home of John Paul II Museum in Wadowice (Muzeum Dom Rodzinny Ojca Świętego Jana Pawła II w Wadowicach)

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Sports shoes Family Home of John Paul II Museum in Wadowice (Muzeum Dom Rodzinny Ojca Świętego Jana Pawła II w Wadowicach)

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Priest Karol Wojtyła’s canoe Family Home of John Paul II Museum in Wadowice (Muzeum Dom Rodzinny Ojca Świętego Jana Pawła II w Wadowicach)

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Oar Family Home of John Paul II Museum in Wadowice (Muzeum Dom Rodzinny Ojca Świętego Jana Pawła II w Wadowicach)

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Karol Wojtyła proved to be a good priest. Soon after his ordination, Archbishop Adam Stefan Sapieha sent him to Rome for studies, from where he returned to Krakow as a fledgling PhD. Soon he defended his habilitation thesis and became a professor of ethics, a prominent authority on the philosophy of man.
Simultaneously, the priest Professor Wojtyła did not neglect his pastoral activities. He especially liked to work with the youth, mainly with students, devoting to them his every spare moment – including his holiday, when they trekked in the mountains and sailed on lakes together.
It was on one such trip – almost straight out of the canoe – that he was summoned to Warsaw where he was informed about having just been appointed bishop by the Pope.
His nomination came as no surprise – Wojtyła was one of the most prominent and talented priests in the Krakow archdiocese…
Cloak and biretta of bishop Wojtyła Family Home of John Paul II Museum in Wadowice (Muzeum Dom Rodzinny Ojca Świętego Jana Pawła II w Wadowicach)

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Nomination bull of pope Paul VI Family Home of John Paul II Museum in Wadowice

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Initially, Wojtyła served in Krakow “only” as an auxiliary bishop. After the death of his principal, Archbishop Eugeniusz Baziak, Pope Paul VI appointed Wojtyła the archbishop of Krakow.
It was an important ecclesiastical position, one of the most important in Poland. The new Archbishop soon became well-known and highly respected in Poland, and in time also in the universal Church. His opinions were highly valued by the then Pope, who as early as 1967 promoted Wojtyła into the Sacred College of Cardinals. As it is known, the title of a cardinal is conferred only to the chosen ones. Cardinals assist the Pope in directing the Catholic Church, and after his death elect a new successor of St. Peter from among them.
Cassock and biretta of cardinal Wojtyła Family Home of John Paul II Museum in Wadowice (Muzeum Dom Rodzinny Ojca Świętego Jana Pawła II w Wadowicach)

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Cassock and zucchetto of pope John Paul II Family Home of John Paul II Museum in Wadowice (Muzeum Dom Rodzinny Ojca Świętego Jana Pawła II w Wadowicach)

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It must be remembered that in the 1970s Cardinal Karol Wojtyła of Krakow was known as one of the most prominent hierarchs in the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, he was relatively young, had a fluent command of several languages and came from a country not yet touched with the religious crisis. According to many observers of the life of the Church of that time, he would have made an ideal candidate for the Pope, but for the many-century tradition of appointing the Pope exclusively from among Italians.
Nonetheless, in the wake of the death of the ailing Pope Paul VI, and the sudden death of his successor John Paul I, who sat on the throne of St. Peter for only a month, the chances of Wojtyła grew rapidly. Therefore, when in the October conclave the cardinals could not reach an agreement on the election of the Pope from among the Italian candidates, suddenly the name of Wojtyła appeared. That was the turning point.
The election was completed on 16 October 1978, several minutes after 5 pm; the new Pope assumed the name of John Paul II. Many years later, John Paul II started to be referred to as “the Great Pope”, and his successor Benedict XVI proclaimed his beatification six years after his death. But this is yet another story…


Janusz Poniewierski – a journalist, author of books on John Paul II, e.g., Pontyfikat. 1978–2005 (The Pontificate. 1978-2005) (Krakow 2005) and Kwiatki Jana Pawła II (Flowers of John Paul II) (Krakow 2002)


Projekt graficzny i wykonanie:
Dagmara Berska, Parastudio, Łukasz Wiśniewski, CC-BY 3.0 PL

Author: Janusz Poniewierski, ⓒ all rights reserved
MIK (2013)