While he may be best known as a pope, a philosopher and a key figure in helping to end Communist rule in Europe, Pope Saint John Paul II was an amalgamation of many impressive and winning traits that made him a “rock star” to millions.
Born Karol Józef Wojtyła in 1920 in Poland, the man knew sorrow from a young age: His mother died in childbirth when he was 8 years old, and by the time he was 20, Wojtyla would be the only remaining member left of his immediate family.
He knew what it was like to work hard, to suffer physical pain, and to be afraid: When Nazi occupation forces invaded Poland and closed the university, Wojtyła went to work to avoid deportation. At a quarry where he did manual labor, he suffered a skull fracture and became permanently maimed after being struck by a truck. He escaped the Gestapo by hiding in his uncle’s basement and fleeing to the archbishop’s palace.
He was intelligent and had many interests and talents: As a child he played sports and later fell in love with theatre, becoming an actor and playwright. He loved languages and mastered 12 of them, using nine fluently as pope. He found joy and rejuvenation in the outdoors, taking young people on regular hikes to the mountains when he was a young priest. He loved skiing, biking, camping and kayaking.
The future saint enjoyed people of all kinds, and seemed at home in other parts of the world. Not many world leaders traveled more than he did—he visited 129 countries during his pontificate. During his 27 years as pope, he promoted the idea of the “universal call to holiness” and beatified or canonized close to 2,000 people. He built bridges with the Orthodox churches and between Christians, Muslims, and Jews.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the first non-Italian pope since 1523, and second longest-serving pope in modern history. It’s hard to conceive one life could contain so much.
While it is the norm to celebrate a saint’s feast day on the anniversary of his death, we celebrate John Paul II’s on the anniversary of his papal inauguration, October 22.