Karol Jozef Wojtyla was born in Wadowice, Poland on May 18, 1920, shortly after Marshal Jozef Pilsudski defeated the Soviet Red Army to gain Polish independence. Like most young boys, Karol enjoyed an active childhood, playing soccer and swimming often, although he was most known for his remarkable intelligence and respect at a very young age. When he was eight years old, his mother, Emilia, died of an infection of the heart, and shortly afterward, his only brother, a physician, contracted scarlet fever from a patient and passed away. When learning of the deaths of his mother and brother, witnesses recalled young Karol’s response to the news to be a simple remark: “Such was God’s will.” By the time he was 21, Hitler had already occupied his homeland, ending Poland’s only period of independence between 1772 and 1989. Shortly after the Nazi invasion, Karol’s father, Karol Senior, also passed away after a prolonged illness, leaving 20 year old Karol without family. (Vatican Online)
About thirty eight years later, in 1978, the College of Cardinals elected the young Polish Cardinal, Wojtyla, to become the 264th Bishop of Rome and the Vicar of Christ; the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years. On October 22 of that year, Wojtyla was installed as Pope John Paul II, honoring the two popes of the Second Vatican Council, whose reforms he intended to continue throughout the duration of his papacy.
Once in power, John Paul immediately displayed an activist approach which was unprecedented in the papacy. Despite advancements in transportation and technology, his activism in the world was still a remarkable attribute, for popes have historically stated their beliefs and principles rather passively from the Vatican. Through this activism, he exemplified the tenets of his own book of philosophy, The Acting Person, which states that actions define a person, and not thoughts or statements.
In the early 1980’s, he was privately criticized by Catholic Bishops for traveling “too much,” which they felt was giving a “triumphalist face to Catholicism when he should have been concentrating on rebuilding the church from behind his desk in the Vatican.” When questioned about this criticism on a flight to Spain, John Paul responded, “Yes, I agree! I am traveling too much!” But sometimes it is necessary to do something of what is too much!” (Britannica Online)
John Paul may have developed his active characteristics as a Cardinal in Poland during the 1970’s, when Communist authorities banned him from traditional use of the media, forcing him and his fellow church leaders to travel relentlessly among the people. During these early years of travel, John Paul became an immensely skilled speaker, skills that he would take with him throughout his still-enduring papacy, attracting record breaking crowds wherever he spoke, and becoming, by far, the most recognized man in the world.