My fellow seminarians and I sat together shortly after noon on Monday, October 16, 1978, with our eyes fixed on the television set.  White smoke rose from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel signifying to the world that a new Pope had been elected by the College of Cardinals assembled inside.  

“Habemus Papam, we have a Pope” proclaimed Cardinal Pericle Felici, the senior Cardinal deacon.  It was the second time that year he made the same announcement, once before for Pope John Paul I on August 26, who served only 33 days, and now for Pope John Paul II.  At 58 years of age, Polish-born Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was the first non-Italian elected Pope since 1523.  

I must confess, I recognized neither the name nor the face.  That would soon change.

Pope John Paul II would become, not counting St. Peter, the second longest reigning Pope in the Church’s history.

Photo Gallery: The Ministry of Pope John Paul II

Karol Wojtyla was born in Wadowice, Poland, 100 years ago today, May 18, 1920.  What a life he lived!  Surviving the Nazi occupation of his homeland and the Second World War, Wojtyla was ordained a priest in 1946 and sent to Rome for further studies.  With a philosophy doctorate in hand, the future Pope would begin his pastoral work back in Poland in 1948.  He pursued a second doctorate at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, this one in theology, and he furthered his academic and pastoral career, distinguishing himself as an outstanding teacher, author and priest to college students.

Twelve years after his priestly ordination, Wojtyla was ordained an Auxiliary Bishop of Krakow.  He attended the Second Vatican Council and was named Archbishop of Krakow in 1964.  Three years later, he was elevated to Cardinal.

There is so much more that could be written about his early years and many accomplishments, but I have to leave his great “story” to others, much more qualified to tell it.

His twenty-six years as Pope were unparalleled in the modern era.  His world travels alone were remarkable.  Pope John Paul II was seen by more people than any other person in history.  He played significant roles in and outside of the Church, partnering with world and other religious leaders in the development of justice and peace throughout the globe.  He authored 14 encyclical letters and promulgated a new Code of Canon Law and a Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Again, far beyond my poor attempt to catalogue them here, Pope John Paul II’s contributions to the Church and world society cannot adequately be measured here.  He survived an assassination attempt and suffered from its effects and other health issues throughout much of his papacy.  He was, however, undaunted in his proclamation of the Gospel from the Chair of Peter.

As with anyone entrusted with leadership responsibilities in today’s Church and world, Pope John Paul II was not without his critics.  But nothing kept him from giving his life daily for what he considered true and beautiful and right.

On April 2, 2005, Pope John Paul II died as he lived, an untiring witness of faith and hope and mercy, an embodiment of the Cross of Christ.  

After a remarkably and unusually brief period of time, Pope John Paul II was canonized a saint along with Pope John XXIII by Pope Francis on April 27, 2014.  In his homily at the canonization Mass, Pope Francis said of them, they

"... were not afraid to look upon the wounds of Jesus, to touch his torn hands and his pierced side.  They were not ashamed of the flesh of Christ, they were not scandalized by him, by his cross; they did not despise the flesh of their brother (cf. Is 58:7), because they saw Jesus in every person who suffers and struggles. These were two men of courage, filled with the parrhesia (boldness) of the Holy Spirit, and they bore witness before the Church and the world to God’s goodness and mercy. They were priests, and bishops and popes of the twentieth century. They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful – faith in Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man and the Lord of history; the mercy of God, shown by those five wounds, was more powerful; and more powerful too was the closeness of Mary our Mother."

Pope St. John Paul II, intercede for us now in our hour of need.