Pope St. John Paul II Lived His Priesthood as an Oblation

COMMENTARY: On the 75th anniversary of his priestly ordination, we recall Karol Wojtyła, who ended as he had begun, living a priesthood signed by suffering.

Pope John Paul II in August, 1999.
Pope John Paul II in August, 1999. (photo: Mauricio Artieda / Vatican Media)

On All Saints’ Day 1946 — 75 years ago — St. John Paul II was ordained a priest in the private chapel of the archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Adam Sapieha, who had just been elevated to the sacred college earlier that year.

“The story of my priestly vocation?” John Paul wrote in Gift and Mystery, his memoir for the 50th anniversary of his ordination in 1996. “It is known above all to God. At its deepest level, every vocation to the priesthood is a great mystery; it is gift which infinitely transcends the individual. Every priest experiences this clearly throughout the course of his life. Face with the greatness of the gift, we sense our own inadequacy.”

From the perspective of the papacy, John Paul was hardly viewed as “inadequate”; to the contrary, he was considered a greatly worldly success, even triumphant.

That is not how John Paul saw it from the beginning. John Paul’s priesthood, begun less than 18 months after the end of World War II, was born in brutal suffering. In 1946, as Stalinism was replacing Hitlerism in Krakow, it was more likely that he would be crushed by history than live to change it.

“My priesthood, even at its beginning, was in some way marked by the great sacrifice of countless men and women of my generation,” John Paul also wrote. “Providence spared me the most difficult experiences; and so my sense of indebtedness is all the greater, both to people whom I knew and to many more whom I did not know. In a way these people guided me to this path; by their sacrifice they showed me the most profound and essential truth about the priesthood of Christ.”

The young Karol Wojtyła saw most of the Jews of his hometown, Wadowice, killed in the Holocaust. Many were his friends. On the morning World War II started, Wojtyła was serving Holy Mass at Wawel Cathedral; across the courtyard was Wawel Castle, where the notorious Nazi governor Hans Frank would install himself during the occupation of Poland’s ancient and royal capital. At the beginning of the war, the faculty of the Jagiellonian University where Wojtyła was studying were packed into trucks and deported to the camps.

The massacre of the Polish clergy was one of the most severe traumas of World War II. Some 2,000 of Poland’s 10,000 diocesan priests were killed during the war. Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp near Munich, was the preferred place of internment and execution. The Nazis killed 868 Polish priests at Dachau, which held some 3,000 Catholic clergy over the years of its operation. Two-thirds of those clerics were Polish.

Every Polish priest knew personally fellow priests who were killed. While a clandestine seminarian during the war in Krakow, Wojtyła would often serve Cardinal Sapieha’s morning Mass.

“One morning in April 1944, his fellow server and another clandestine student for the priesthood, Jerzy Zachuta, didn’t show up,” writes George Weigel in Witness to Hope. “After Mass, Karol went to Zachuta’s home to see what had happened. In the middle of the previous night, the Gestapo had taken his classmate away. Immediately afterward, the name of Jerzy Zachuta appeared on a Gestapo poster listing Poles to be shot. One was taken, the other remained. In the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences.”

So when Karol Wojtyła prostrated himself on the floor in the archbishop’s chapel 75 years ago, he did not think only about the symbolism of a priest laying down his life. He knew the reality of the thousands of his fellow priests and seminarians lying cold in their graves.

“I wish to address all my brothers in the priesthood: each and every one of them,” he wrote in Gift and Mystery. “I do so in the words of St. Peter: ‘Brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election, for if you do this you will never fall’ (2 Peter 1:10). Love your priesthood! Be faithful to the end! Learn to see in your priesthood the Gospel treasure for which is worth giving up everything (Matthew 13:44).”

Those were not just pious words. Being “faithful to the end” was not an abstraction; he knew exactly how the end had come for so many priests. St. Maximilian Kolbe was murdered at Auschwitz 20 miles from where Wojtyła was born, baptized and grew up. 

John Paul would canonize Father Kolbe in 1982. In 1999, he beatified 107 Polish martyrs of World War II, including four Salesians he knew personally from his home parish in Krakow, St. Stanislaus Kostka in the Debniki neighborhood. When he returned to that parish on Nov. 3, 1946, to celebrate another “first Mass,” the parish’s own priest-martyrs were dead less than five years. More than any other pope since the early centuries of the Church, John Paul had lived with martyrs and counted martyrs among his friends.

For his golden jubilee in 1996, there was a massive celebration in Rome, a great celebration of the priesthood. On that occasion, John Paul thought to share with the entire Church a pious devotion from his seminary days, the “Litany of Jesus Christ, Priest and Victim.” It was included in an appendix of Gift and Mystery and subsequently became a devotional prayer adopted in various seminaries.

The priestly litany is unusual for the invocations that make explicit the victimhood of Christ: “thou hast offered Thyself as an oblation and victim to God,” “appeasing Victim,” “Victim of propitiation and of praise,” “Victim in Whom we have confidence and access to God.”

In due course, as age and infirmity took their toll — to say nothing of the assassination attempt of 1981 — John Paul would live his priesthood as an oblation. He ended as he had begun, living a priesthood signed by suffering.

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