Poland Shaped the Soul of St. John Paul II

Part I: Work, Culture, Mystics

Pope John Paul II during Holy Week 1983.
Pope John Paul II during Holy Week 1983. (photo: L’Osservatore Romano)

One cannot adequately speak about the inner spiritual life of Pope St. John Paul II without considering the complexity of his life and the large role that his native land played in the formation of his soul. His early life is well-known: Born in the small Polish town of Wadowice in 1920 to devout Catholic parents, who instilled a deep love of the faith, Karol Józef Wojtyła had his childhood shattered with the death of his mother when he was only 9 years old. His father, who never remarried, was a great influence on the spiritual life of his son, nicknamed by his mother “Lolek.” The image of his father as a man of constant prayer, a man whose example was “a kind of domestic seminary,” stayed with Karol for the rest of his life.

In 1938, his father decided that they would move to the big city of Kraków, where Karol could study at the Jagiellonian University. But on Sept. 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and the entire country became a large war camp. Everything was strictly controlled. Poles lived in a state of constant want of even the most basic items. People were routinely arrested, shipped off to Nazi concentration camps and shot. It was a life of constant uncertainty.

Because the Nazis required all able-bodied men to have a job, Karol began work at a quarry on Kraków’s south side and was then transferred to a nearby chemical plant. Until this time, he had lived solely in the world of academia and the arts. But this experience introduced him, for the first time, to the world of manual labor and common laborers. And through this he began to see work, not so much as “a curse of original sin,” but “a participation in God’s creativity.” From this grew a spirituality of work, which would deeply influence his later thought.


Discernment and Priesthood

But his life did not consist solely of work. As a teenager, Karol became interested in theater, and one of Wadowice’s theatrical directors, Mieczysław Kotlarczyk, had a profound influence on him.

A devout Catholic, Kotlarczyk believed that drama was a means of “transmitting the word of God” and that the actor, by opening up the realm of transcendent truth, “had a function not unlike a priest.”

Even though the Nazis banned Polish cultural activities, the duo formed an underground theatrical company called the Rhapsodic Theater in wartime Kraków as a protest against the suppression of Poland’s culture. As a “theater of the word,” it fought evil by speaking the truth and formed Karol into the charismatic figure who would later be at home among vast crowds of people as pope, fighting evil by speaking the truth.

Kotlarczyk was one of two laymen who had a profound impact on young Wojtyła’s spiritual life. The other was Jan Tyranowski, an unassuming mystic now declared “Venerable” by the Church. He taught Karol how to develop his inner spiritual life and live in the constant presence of God. The greatest impact that he had on Karol’s spiritual life was when he introduced him to St. John of the Cross, opening for him the door to Carmelite spirituality, which would influence the rest of his life.

Karol’s father’s death, when Karol was only 21 years old, was to be the decisive moment that changed the course of his life. This loss of the last member of his family began a process of detachment amid the harsh reality of war and an increasingly intense spiritual life. Karol had always wanted to be an actor, but it wasn’t to be. Gradually, Karol came to the realization that he was called to a greater destiny: the priesthood. The final decision to enter the seminary came in the fall of 1942. He was ordained Nov. 1, 1946, and, the following day, offered his first three Masses in the St. Leonard Crypt of Wawel Cathedral.


Polish Culture and History

Because the spirituality of this man has always been inextricably tied to the history and culture of his country, it is, therefore, virtually impossible to understand his inner spiritual life without an understanding of Poland’s history and culture. For instance, by choosing to offer his first Masses on All Souls’ Day in Poland’s coronation cathedral and necropolis, he had consciously chosen to express his spiritual and historical bond with all of those who lay at rest there.

Poland was once one of the great powers of Europe. But after a series of wars in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was so weakened that it became prey to its greedy neighbors, Russia, Prussia and Austria.

In a series of secret agreements, they divided it up between themselves, and by 1795, Poland ceased to exist. This tragic era, called “The Partitions,” was the beginning of two centuries of foreign occupation and suppression.

Only 21 years after The Partitions had ended, in 1918, Poland once again became an occupied county under Nazi Germany. Then, instead of liberation at war’s end, Poland was forced into communist servitude by its old enemy to the east. This was the nation into which St. John Paul II was born, a nation whose history and culture formed a distinctive Polish mentality and distinctive Catholic spirituality.

And the city which he called home was an integral element of that history and culture.

Kraków was the former seat of the Polish monarchy. It had always been a great center of culture in Poland and was the place where Karol Wojtyła’s own cultural talents and sensitivities matured. It was there that he learned that culture had always played a vital role in the faith, fully conscious that it had also played an important role in the shaping of his own spirituality.


Saintly Inspiration

Kraków was often called the “Rome of the North,” and the 15th century, in particular, was a unique and blessed period in the city’s history. Known as Felix saeculum Cracoviae — “the happy century of Kraków” — it was a period when a number of mystics, later canonized or beatified, lived there.

Some of them played an influential role in the formation of St. John Paul II’s spirituality.

The one to whom St. John Paul had the greatest devotion was St. John Cantius, patron of Kraków and its university. It was St. John’s cultivation of the intellect within the context of a life of holiness and an intense love for youth that particularly influenced St. John Paul. He saw in him a model of what he himself was: a philosopher and a theologian. And it was particularly in this saint that St. John Paul saw how Christian faith and the pursuit of human knowledge were not mutually exclusive, as he later told us in his encyclical, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason).

As archbishop of Kraków, St. John Paul II had a great devotion to his predecessor, the great St. Stanisław Szczepanowski, bishop and martyr, who attained martyrdom in 1079 at the hand of the king as he offered Mass. That’s why St. John Paul very much saw himself, as pope, as a modern-day Stanislaw fighting for the rights of the Church against an evil communist government.

Among more recent Polish saints who contributed to the formation of St. John Paul II’s spiritual life was St. Albert Chmielowski. Although a talented painter, Albert realized that God was calling him to give up a promising career in art in order to care for the poor and homeless in the 19th century.

This example gave Karol a crucial “spiritual reinforcement and model of the radical choice found on the road to a vocation” when he decided to leave the world of art after the death of his father for a vocation to the priesthood.

St. Maximilian Kolbe gave St. John Paul a living model of the priesthood as a life of total sacrifice for others, even to the point of giving one’s life. Of him John Paul wrote: “At a time when so many priests all over the world are questioning themselves about their ‘identity,’ Father Maximilian rises in our midst to answer not with theological discourses, but with his life and with his death, and as a teacher to bear a testimony of the greatest love.”

St. Faustina Kowalska, who lived and died in the shadow of the chemical plant where Karol worked during the war, helped open up for him, in turn, the riches of God’s infinite mercy, that divine attribute that a priest must also possess if he is to be “another Christ.” It is no surprise, therefore, that one of his first encyclicals as pope was Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy).

Father Dennis Kolinski, of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius, 

is associate pastor at St. John Cantius in Chicago.

Part II: St. John Paul II’s Marian devotion.