In Wadowice, a small mountain town in southern Poland, memories of the Pope are everywhere. The oldest ones remember him as Lolek — the nickname that young Karol Wojtyla had long before he took the name John Paul. They remember a child deeply imprinted with the love — and loss — of his family.
“My mother always dreamed of having one son become a doctor and another become a priest.”
Emilia Wojtyla gave birth to Karol Wojtyla on May 18, 1920, when she was 36 years old. He was her third child. Karol’s sister, Olga, had died as a baby six years earlier. His older brother, Edmund, turned 14 the year Karol was born.
Much has been made of the fact that the Pope’s mother died when he was a child. Some have even imagined his intense Marian devotion was some sort of emotional transference strategy.
But something far more simple and profound was more likely the case. His loving mother formed him to be the man he would become — and helped direct his spirituality.
Helena Szczepanska was a close friend of Emilia Wojtyla.
“The Pope’s mother was particularly close to her son Karol,” she once said. “She was proud of him. All mothers are, I suppose, but Emilia was different. She was an absolute darling. When Karol was a little baby, if the weather was fine, she would come under the trees by the well and would rock him to sleep.”
As Pope, he would have an audience of millions. Back then his audience was his family and his neighbor.
“I could hear the little Karol babbling under my window,” said Szczepanska. “Mundek, Karol’s brother, would go up and down the stairs to give him his feeding bottle.”
Emilia would tell her friends, “You will see, my Lolek will become a great man.”
Any mother of a 9-year-old knows that the impression she has made on her child is already deep and lasting. Karol was 9 when his mother died. As a young man, he wrote a poem that evoked an image of his mother:
many years have gone by
Without you? — how many years
Have passed over your white grave?
Still, mother, my beloved, you are gone.
Dr. Edmund Wojtyla
“My brother’s death became deeply engraved in my memory.”
Lolek was 11 when his brother and only sibling, Edmund, died at age 26.
The two were far apart in age, but Mundek — that was Edmund’s nickname — had reached out to Lolek. He took his little brother hiking and skiing. Decades later, the Pope would remember the scene he saw at 10 years old when he watched his big brother graduate magna cum laude from the medical school in Krakow .
Young Dr. Edmund got his first job at Powszechny Hospital in Bielsko-Biala, near Wadowice. The doctors there remembered him as hard working, with a sense of humor. He organized entertainment and told jokes to amuse the patients. He excelled at bridge, chess and soccer.
But he didn’t work there for long.
A scarlet fever epidemic broke out, and Dr. Edmund spent all night caring for one of the sufferers. He caught the disease that night and died on Dec. 4, 1932. Years later, the hospital where he caught the disease was renamed after him, as was a street in Wadowice.
The Pope has said that his brother’s death was even harder to bear than his mother’s.
Karol Wojtyla, Sr.
“After my mother’s death, my father’s life became one of constant prayer.”
Karol was raised for the next 11 years by his father in the three-bedroom apartment where he was born, across the street from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church.
That means the most significant influence on the future Pope was Karol Wojtyla, Sr., a military man devoted to prayer and the sacraments. At his encouragement, the 11-year-old Wojtyla became an altar boy.
The two literally lived in the shadow of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, and their life took on the rhythms of the liturgical life of the Church. The Pope would later compare the experience of his childhood with the seminary.
A Polish army record describes Karol Wojtyla, Sr. as “extraordinarily well-developed, with a righteous character, serious, well-mannered, modest, concerned about honor, with a strongly developed sense of responsibility, very gentle and tireless [at work].”
Said the Pope, “The violence of the blows that struck him opened up immense spiritual depths in him. His grief found its outlet in prayer. The mere fact of seeing him on his knees had a decisive effect on my early years. ... Even now when I awake at night, I remember seeing my father kneeling and praying. He was so hard on himself that he had no need to be hard on his son; his example alone was sufficient to inculcate discipline and duty. … My father was the person who explained to me the mystery of God.”
The widower father and his son did more than pray together. Biographers tell the story of the two rolling up a rug and playing soccer inside their apartment.
On Feb. 18, 1941, the 20-year-old Wojtyla came home from work to find his father dead. He spent the night on his knees beside the body, praying, in tears. Later, he told his friend, Julius Kydrynski: “I’ve never felt so alone.”
Priest, ‘Uncle,’ Pope
“As a young priest, I learned to love human love.”
Lolek had lost his family members one by one until, by age 20, they were all gone. But he wasn’t an orphan for long. Soon, he entered the seminary and committed himself to the Church, in the vocation Christ promised would bring a hundred times the family and homes he left behind.
Karol Wojtyla was ordained a priest at age 26 — the age his brother was when he had died. Father Karol was more than the typical parish priest. He was affectionately called “Uncle” by a tight-knit flock of young couples whom he counseled and befriended.
It was then, as a celibate priest, that the lessons of family life began to deepen in his mind. It happened in long conversations with married couples, on camping trips and in home visits.
As a bishop, cardinal and Pope, he would write candidly and with great understanding about the marital relationship. In his final years, he would insistently defend the family.
The memory of the Pope’s family was never far from him. He always kept a picture of his mother and father — their wedding picture — visible in his residence.
Reading some of the quotes of the Pope about the family, it’s easy to think of the three-bedroom apartment on Ryneck Street, and Lolek growing up with his father, in the glow of the memory of his mother, brother, and infant sister:
“The family has the mission to guard, reveal and communicate love, and this is a living reflection of and a real sharing in God’s love for humanity and the love of Christ the Lord for the Church, his bride.”
“Joys and sorrows, hopes and disappointments, births and birthday celebrations, wedding anniversaries of the parents, separations and homecomings, important and far-reaching decisions, the death of those who are dear — all of these mark God’s loving intervention in the family’s history.
“In the newborn child is realized the common good of the family.
“Thanks to love within the family, the Church can and ought to take on a more homelike and family dimension, developing a more human and fraternal style of relationships.”
On his last trip to his hometown of Wadowice in 2002, Lolek bid his family farewell.
“I believe that she who brought me into the world and filled my childhood with love will also watch over this undertaking,” he said of his mother.
Before leaving, he visited the family plot at the cemetery where his father, mother and brother are buried, side by side. He left flowers at the tomb and prayed silently, in words only he and God knows.
Now, at last, he is with them again.