6 things you never knew about John Paul II

October 12, 2018 | History

In a few days it will be 40 years since Pope John Paul II was chosen as the first Polish Pope on 16 October 1978. It was for Poles I suspect, the greatest surprise of our whole lives. I barely remember the day, though my mother said it was a total shock when they announced his name in Latin and with no social media to share the news, we all rushed to meet at the Polish church. I met him once, when he was very old and wished it had been earlier. He was first and foremost a very down to earth man. Here’s a few facts you may not know.

He loved to jog

When he moved into the Vatican, he jogged in the gardens for many years, something I only learnt this year visiting the gardens in Rome. This was not his only form of exercise, he loved skiing, climbing and canoeing. He skied until he was 73. A swimming pool was built for him in Castel Galdonfo the Pope’s summer residence, which he then regularly used, and the tennis court was renovated for his use.

His favourite day was Tuesday

He loved Tuesdays, because it was the only day he had free from Papal audiences or official masses. He would use this to write homilies and his many encyclicals, walk in the gardens and relax. He would also often leave the Vatican for a few hours for walking trips and in the evenings he would attend campfires organised by the policemen guarding him and loved listening to their singing.

Young people 

John Paul II started and ended his priesthood with young people. As a university chaplain in Krákow, he would take young people hiking and kayaking, saying mass on an upturned kayak.  They stayed with him throughout his life, visiting in Rome and became his group of closest friends. Later he initiating World Youth Days which took place 10 times during his Pontificate. His dying words, upon hearing that young people had arrived in the square to pray for him, were  “I searched for you, and now you have come to me and for that I thank you sincerely”.  They also came to pay their last respects, as I did, joining a Polish school group in the day long queues which formed in Rome.

He could have been an actor

Growing up in Wadowice, his first ambition was to be an actor. He was completely absorbed by a passion for literature and the theatre.  On entering university in Kraków he joined an avante-garde troupe called Studio 39. Sadly this was 1939 and with the university closed and German occupation a daily reality, his world changed forever. However Karol took his artistic ambitions underground forming the Rhapsodic Theatre devoted to keeping alive the tradition of Polish romantic literature. Performances were held in secret in people’s houses and the members would have been arrested or even killed had they been discovered by the Germans. He also wrote plays, but it was during the War that he began to feel the stirrings of a vocation.  In the end, he played a totally different role, on the world stage.

He beat many records

Marion Doss (CC BY-SA 2.0)

He was the first non Italian to be chosen since 1522. The first Pope to reply to media questions at media audiences and he introduced the internet to the Vatican. He beat the record by far on trips abroad (103) visiting 132 countries and 900 places. He was the first to visit a synagogue and a mosque. The first to wear a watch and read without glasses and the first to attend a rock concert in Bologna and spectate at a football match.  More than anything he  declared over 1300 people blessed (the precursor to beatification) and beatified 478 new saints.

He loved a joke

He was not only an actor but always liked to have a joke with friends. Here’s one of them: The Pope is praying and asking God: “Lord, will Poland ever be free again?”, “Yes, answers God – but not during your lifetime”. So the Pope asks, will there ever be another Polish Pope?  God answers “not in my lifetime”.

And when he was canonised in April 2014, Kraków finally said goodbye to him. A taxi driver said to me at the time  “this is our final farewell, he kept coming back to us but now it’s like he has left the inhabitants of Kraków for the world, forever“.


Blog main image by Rogelio A. Galaviz C. CC BY-NC 2.0




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