Remembering Pope John Paul II

13th anniversary of the death of Poland’s first pope.

Poland’s Catholics will pay their tribute to the country’s first pope, John Paul II, whose significance for world politics was arguably just as great as for the Catholic Church itself.

Pope John Paul II, born Karol Józef Wojtyła, passed away on April 2, 2005 at the age of 84, ending what many describe as a crucial and revolutionary pontificate. Pope John Paul II, who was canonised on April 27, 2014, thus taking his place among the saints of the Church, was elected by the papal conclave back in 1978 – a move which was widely considered as a sign of defiance against communism. The Pope’s teachings and travels are now considered to have played a vital role in toppling communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe, making him one of the most illustrious characters in 20th century history.

Yet Pope John Paul II is also remembered for the thoroughly human dimension of his pontificate, for his kindness, compassion as well as his long and defiant struggle against his declining health. He continued to travel the world until the very end, and visited a total of 129 countries during his pontificate.

Karol Wojtyła was the second longest-serving pope in modern history and the first non-Italian pope in more than 400 years. Throughout his term, he has managed to survive two assassination attempts, including the gunshot wounds sustained when he was shot by Mehmet Ali Ağca in St Peter’s square in 1981. Theories have later emerged that the Soviet Union may have inspired the attack as retaliation for the pope’s support for the Solidarity democratic movement in Poland, although no conclusive evidence has been obtained so far.

In Poland, the pope is remembered for his staunch support of the struggle for democracy, human rights and freedom, epitomised by his seminal homily of June 1979, when he made his first pilgrimage to Poland, still under communist rule at the time. Yet for all the political importance of his actions, the spiritual dimension of his pontificate is considered at least just as important, with the pope’s legacy serving as an inspiration for many people in their everyday lives.

In Warsaw, a vigil in the memory of Poland’s beloved pope will be held today in one of the city’s squares, attended by top officials of the Catholic Church. The motto for this year’s ceremonies is the pope’s simple yet powerful call – “Be not afraid!”, the words first spoken during his 1979 visit to Poland which have inspired many to make a stand against the authoritarian regime, ultimately bringing about its collapse in 1989. For Poland’s Catholics, these words still ring true today just as they did all those years ago.