Pope John Paul II is the first Polish pope and the first non-Italian pope since the 16th century. Born Karol Josef Wojtyla on May 18, 1920, to a Polish army officer in Wadowice in Poland, John Paul II attended an underground seminary during the World War II German occupation and was ordained a priest in 1946. After studying in Rome and at the University of Krakow, he was appointed professor of ethics at the University of Lublin in 1956. Here, he published the first of many articles and books on philosophical and theological themes. Consecrated bishop in 1958, he served first as auxiliary bishop of Krakow and in 1964 became archbishop of Krakow. He was made a cardinal in 1967 and was elected pope on October 16, 1978, succeeding John Paul I. During his pontificate he has traveled more extensively than any of his predecessors, preaching to millions of people on six continents and in more than 50 nations.

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John Paul II’s pontificate has revealed two principal goals. The first is his vigorous commitment to justice and peace. He has consistently encouraged nations to construct a social order that fosters human dignity. He has criticized the injustices of both Communism and capitalism. The pope has presented his ideas on social justice and other theological themes in the encyclicals Redemptor hominis (1979), Dives in misericordia (1980), Laborem exercens (1981), Slavorum apostolorum (1985), Dominum et vivificantem (1986), Redemptoris mater (1987), and Centesimus Annus (1991). His personal philosophy was outlined in the best-selling book Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994).

John Paul’s second goal is to affirm the unambiguous identity of Roman Catholicism. Uneasy with dissent, he has attempted to enforce the church’s disciplinary rules, and to resist uncontrolled innovations. (He has, for example, condemned some aspects of liberation theology, reaffirmed traditional Catholic teaching on the sinfulness of homosexual behavior, and opposed the ordination of women to the priesthood.) In appointing new bishops and cardinals, the pope has consistently favored men who have demonstrated strong loyalty to the papacy. In the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993) he emphasized the need for church discipline; in Evangelium Vitae (1995) he denounced abortion and euthanasia, and expressed strong reservations about capital punishment. John Paul has followed the practice introduced by John XXIII and Paul VI of meeting with leaders of other Christian churches. He has also sought to improve Catholic-Jewish relations and in 1993 established diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Israel. In 1983, John Paul promulgated a revised Code of Canon Law; in 1992 he approved the publication of a new Catholic Catechism.

John Paul II has been an active and forceful pontiff whose public exposure has made him a spiritual leader throughout the world. He has survived two assassination attempts: one in Saint Peter’s Square in 1981 in which he was seriously wounded, and another, without injury, in Portugal in 1982.