For over 25 years, Pope John Paul II led people of all faiths to a greater awareness of the dignity and responsibility of defending human rights. In a period of rapid transition, John Paul II was a towering figure at the moral center of modern life. His strength, determination and faith were translated into widespread respect and goodwill. It is a life to be celebrated, for the world is a far better place today because of the leadership of Pope John Paul II.
Karol Jozef Wojtyla was born in Poland in 1920. During the Nazi occupation, he joined an underground seminary to study for the priesthood. Father Wojtyla ascended through the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, eventually being named Cardinal in 1967. White smoke rising from a Vatican chimney signaled that he had been elected Pope on October 16, 1978. With this election, he became the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years. At age 58, he was the youngest man to hold the office in 132 years.
His criticism of dictators Stroessner, Pinochet and Marcos encouraged opposition movements that led to their downfall. John Paul II supported the Polish Solidarity movement by sending messages to union leaders via priests, with notes smuggled under their robes. Many historians believe his role was crucial to the end of communism in Poland.
During his years as Pope, John Paul II conducted more than 170 visits to 115 countries around the world, inspiring millions with his messages. His became the most recognized person in the world.
In later years, the Pope’s health steadily declined. Despite this, the Pope said Mass in front of hundreds of people each day and millions around the world on Easter and Christmas. John Paul II celebrated his 84th birthday in 2004 by publishing his fourth book.
On June 4, 2004, President George W. Bush awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, to Pope John Paul. “A devoted servant of God, His Holiness Pope John Paul II has championed the cause of the poor, the weak, the hungry, and the outcast. He has defended the unique dignity of every life, and the goodness of all life. Through his faith and moral conviction, he has given courage to others to be not afraid in overcoming injustice and oppression. His principled stand for peace and freedom has inspired millions and helped to topple communism and tyranny. The United States honors this son of Poland who became the Bishop of Rome and a hero of our time.”