On this day in 2005, Pope Saint John Paul II, history’s most well-traveled pontiff and the first non-Italian to hold the position since the 16th century, expires in his rooms at the Vatican. Six days later, millions of people packed Vatican City for his funeral mass, said to be the biggest in history.
John Paul II was the second longest-serving pope in modern history after Pope Pius IX, who served for nearly 32 years from 1846 to 1878. From in Poland, John Paul II was born Karol Jozef Wojtyla in Wadowice, 35 miles southwest of Krakow, in 1920. After high school, the future pope enrolled at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, where he studied philosophy and literature and performed in a theater group.
During World War II, Nazis occupied Krakow and closed the university, forcing Wojtyla to seek work in a quarry and, later, a chemical factory. By 1941, his mother, father, and only brother had all died, leaving him the sole surviving member of his family. Although Wojtyla had been involved in the church his whole life, it was not until 1942 that he began seminary training.
When the war ended, he returned to school at Jagiellonian to study theology, becoming an ordained priest in 1946. He went on to complete two doctorates and became a professor of moral theology and social ethics. On July 4, 1958, at the age of 38, he was appointed auxiliary bishop of Krakow by Pope Pius XII.
Wojtyla was quietly and slowly building a reputation as a powerful preacher and a man of both great intellect and charisma. Still, when Pope John Paul I died in 1978 after only a 34-day reign, few suspected Wojtyla would be chosen to replace him. But, after seven rounds of balloting, the Sacred College of Cardinals chose the 58-year-old, and he became the first-ever Slavic pope and the youngest to be chosen in 132 years.
John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope since the Dutch Pope Adrian VI, who served from 1522 to 1523. He was one of the most traveled world leaders in history, visiting 129 countries during his pontificate. As part of his special emphasis on the universal call to holiness, he beatified 1,340 people and canonised 483 saints, more than the combined tally of his predecessors during the preceding five centuries.
By the time of his death, he had named most of the College of Cardinals, consecrated or co-consecrated a large number of the world’s bishops, and ordained many priests. A key goal of John Paul’s papacy was to transform and reposition the Catholic Church. His wish was “to place his Church at the heart of a new religious alliance that would bring together Jews, Muslims and Christians in a great religious armada.”
John Paul II’s cause for canonisation commenced in 2005 one month after his death with the traditional five-year waiting period waived. On December 19, 2009, John Paul II was proclaimed Venerable by his successor Pope Benedict XVI and was beatified on May 1, 2011 (Divine Mercy Sunday) after the Congregation for the Causes of Saints attributed one miracle to his intercession, the healing of a French nun from Parkinson’s disease. A second miracle attributed to John Paul II’s intercession was approved on July 2, 2013, and confirmed by Pope Francis two days later (two miracles must be attributed to a person’s intercession to be declared a saint).
John Paul II was canonised on April 27, 2014 (again Divine Mercy Sunday), together with Pope John XXIII. On September 11, 2014, Pope Francis added John Paul II’s optional memorial feast day to the worldwide General Roman Calendar of saints, in response to myriad requests. It is traditional to celebrate saints’ feast days on the anniversary of their deaths, but that of John Paul II is celebrated on the anniversary of his papal inauguration.
And here, our story of the man whose funeral was attended four kings, five queens, at least 70 presidents and prime ministers, more than 14 leaders of other religions, 157 cardinals, 700 bishops, 3,000 priests, and 3,000,000 regular folks endeth.