Karol Joseph Wojtyla (pronounced Voy-tee-wah) was born in Wadowice, Poland on May 18, 1920, to an administrative officer in the Polish army and a former schoolteacher. As a young man, Karol was athletic. He enjoyed playing soccer as a goalie and took daredevil swims in a flooded Swaka River. He also was an excellent student and he served as president of his school sodality. Karol developed a love of theater and for a time it was his ambition to study literature and become a professional actor.
During the Nazi occupation Karol clandestinely pursued both his studies and his acting while working as a stonecutter to support himself and to hold the work permit he needed to avoid deportation or imprisonment. Karol Wojtyla was active in the UNIA, a Christian democratic underground organization. B'nai B'rith and other authorities have testified that he helped Jews find refuge from the Nazis.
While convalescing from an accident, Karol considered a religious vocation and by 1942 he was studying for the priesthood. Karol Wojtyla was ordained a priest on November 1, 1946.
In 1958 Father Wojtyla was named auxiliary bishop of Krakow and four years later he assumed leadership of the diocese with the title of vicar capitular. He was a visible leader, often taking a public stand against communism and government officials.
In 1967 Pope Paul VI elevated him to cardinal. By this time several of his poems and writings had been published including "Easter Vigils and Other Poems".
On October 16, 1978, at age 58, he was elected to succeed Pope John Paul I. He was the first Polish pope and also the first non-Italian pope since Pope Adrian VI in 1522. The new pope continued his travels and in 1981 he visited the United States.
That same year Pope John Paul II suffered severe wounds when he was shot as he entered St. Peter's Square to address a general audience. The pope spent two and half months hospitalized but he fully recovered from his wounds. Two days after Christmas in 1983, Pope John Paul went to the prison and met with his would-be assassin. John Paul has kept their conversation confidential.
The pope has enjoyed hiking, skiing, backpacking, and kayaking. Young people have an even more special place in his heart. In 1985 he called young people to join him for the first World Youth Day celebration in Rome. Since that time he has continued to speak with young people, encouraging them to live the gospels and reach out in a spirit of evangelization to their peers.