St. John Paul II: Witness to Light

In a recent book about Pope St. John Paul II, Stories About Saint John Paul II (Ignatius, 2014), professor Stanislaw Grygiel wrote, “Much has been said already about Polish history and culture, without which it is not possible to understand either the person of John Paul II or his pastoral activity. On the other hand, little is known about the setting in Krakow, with the persons who were decisive for his life.” This was really the goal that George Weigel and I had last year with our book City of Saints: to put Wojtyla’s life into a real context of people and places.  

One of the people we did not feature in our book, but who made a deep impression upon Father Wojtyla as a young priest, was Bishop Jan Pietraszko. The auxiliary bishop of Krakow from 1962 until his death in 1988 is well-described by Grygiel.

Grygiel, who met Father Wojtyla when he was a boy, explained that Father Wojtyla’s unique perspective on pastoral ministry originated with the relatively unknown bishop. Weigel has made clear in Witness to Hope and now in City of Saints that the young group of laity called Srodowisko brought together by Father Wojtyla formed him as much as he formed them. Grygiel provides the initial spark from where Father Wojtyla’s relational attitude came.

The pastoral key, which Grygiel attributes originally to Bishop Pietraszko, is in seeing a priest’s relationship to his flock much like a farmer and his fields. “Our bishops were perfectly aware of the fact that the farmer grows and matures together with the plants entrusted to his care.” So it was with these two farmers and their saplings: “Wojtyla and Pietraszko helped the young people, and the young people helped them to seek God and to walk toward him” amid current culture.

“Culture,” Grygiel adds, “cannot be reduced to learning. On the contrary, nothing is more dangerous to society than learned men who are without culture. Because only culture is life-giving, because the purpose of culture is ‘to rise again.’ Culture is either paschal or it is not culture.” 

Karol Wojtyla’s style, it has been said over and over again, was to truly be present and engaged in the lives of those around him. He was accessible as a priest, bishop and even as pope.

Life in communist Poland was a very gray existence, where few could be trusted, and any public activity was dangerous, so the idea of trying to provide real culture to young people in a society where the secular “culture” was toxic must have been astonishing to the young men and women entrusted to Father Wojtyla. 

John Paul II’s life is a continual witness that even out of great darkness can come a great light.

Carrie Gress

has a doctorate from The Catholic University of America.

She is the co-author, with

George Weigel, of City of Saints: A Pilgrimage to John Paul II’s Kraków.

Follow her World Youth Day previews at