Sunday, April 03, 2005

Pope John Paul II: formative years

I join so many others in saying: Pope John Paul II, rest in peace.

I wanted to write something about Pope John Paul II, although I'm not a Catholic. The picture that keeps coming to my mind is what he was like when he first became Pope. He seemed so astoundingly vital and vibrant; an energetic breath of fresh air in contrast to the predecessors I remembered best, the staid solemnity of Pius XII and the grandfatherly charm of John XXIII.

The thing that stuck me most at that time were the pictures of the vigorous Pope, a youngish-looking man in his 50s, skiing. Yes, skiing! It seemed so surprising, and somehow so wonderful. Later, of course, as his body declined precipitously, it was the intensity of his warmth and spirituality that were apparent and memorable.

I wanted very much to find one of those pictures of him skiing, and to link to it. The only one I managed to find was different, taken when he was a much younger man, but it led me to this fascinating article about his early years (the early skiing photo is there, too).

Who knew that Karol Wojtyla's childhood had been marked by a series of traumatic deaths, and by illness? An infant sister died before his birth. His mother, dead when he was eight; his older brother, dead when Karol was twelve. He himself was injured as a youngster. Somehow, the crucible in which he was formed allowed this religious young man to grow up to become a charismatic athlete, outdoorsman, actor, poet, singer, skier--and, ultimately, Pope.

There was another way in which Karol Wojtyla distinguished himself. Raised in pre-WWII Poland, young Karol also had a good friend who was a Jew. From the article:

The Wojtylas were strict Catholics, but did not share the anti-Semitic views of many Poles. One of Lolek's playmates was Jerzy Kluger, a Jew who many years later would play a key role as a go-between for John Paul II and Israeli officials when the Vatican extended long-overdue diplomatic recognition to Israel. Kluger told The New York Times that he spent many afternoons sitting in the kitchen next to the Wojtylas' coal stove listening to Lolek's father tell stories about Greece, Rome and Poland.

Lolek, in turn, went to the Klugers' 10-room apartment overlooking the town square and listened to music performed by a string quartet composed of two Jews and two Catholics.

"The people in the Vatican do not know Jews, and previous popes did not know Jews," Kluger told the Times. "But this pope is a friend of the Jewish people because he knows Jewish people."

The formative years are very formative, are they not?


At 6:44 AM, April 04, 2005, Anonymous Paul said...

John Paul II was a brilliant, vibrant and extremely spiritual man of exceptional character. May God bless him !!


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