Seventy years ago this week, Karol Wojtyla was “pushed” forward in his vocation by the death of the last member of his close family.
The anniversary was recalled on Italy’s national television channel RaiUno on Feb. 13 by Italian journalist and writer Gian Franco Svidercoschi. He was close to Pope John Paul II and has written numerous books about the late pontiff’s life.
Svidercoschi was given a couple of minutes during regular programming to offer an anecdote about his friend Pope John Paul II’s life.
The tragic event of his father’s death is one that many books on the late Pope “seem to neglect,” said Svidercoschi. For the journalist, however, due to this event—which took place 70 years ago this week—the future Pope was given a further impulse to pursue his vocation.
In 1941, a 20-year-old Karol was working at a stone quarry after the government closed Jagiellonian University where he studied philosophy. He returned from work on Feb. 18 to find that his father, also named Karol, had died of a heart attack.
His sister had died before his birth, his mother died when he was a young boy and his older brother also lost his life six years earlier to scarlet fever. He was “alone,” said Svidercoschi.
“And this,” he explained, “brought about a change, or perhaps it pushed him harder toward that which he already felt inside, that is, to become a priest.”
It is important to remember that these “Polish years” were “the decisive years that formed this Pope, because every experience that he had, every trial that he overcame, in some way then returned and was represented during his pontificate,” said Svidercoschi.
The young Wojtyla’s personal experience of war and Nazism in the 1940s and of Communism in Poland in the years that followed “explains his attentiveness to the cause of man,” said the journalist.
Pope John Paul II put a great deal of emphasis during the first half of his pontificate on advocating for democracy against communism, especially in the Eastern bloc European nations ruled by the Soviet Union. His position against authoritarianism is credited with the eventual fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
Svidercoschi remembered that Wojtyla’s formation during “the Polish years” continued throughout his priesthood until he became Archbishop of Krakow. As archbishop, he took on a “battle” for the creation of new churches that showed him the relationship between the law of God and that of man, “that is, the right of man to be respected.”
All these experiences, Svidercoschi concluded, resurfaced again when he became Pope.