WADOWICE, Poland -- By age 21, the bright, devout young Pole named Karol Wojtyla had little to show for his life but a series of tragic losses.
He was a son who had lost his family, a patriot who had lost his country, a scholar who had lost his university, and an actor who had lost his audience. Death took his family, one by one. The Nazis took the rest. It was 1941, and suddenly he was virtually alone in a world gone mad with genocide and destruction.
But there was still the Roman Catholic Church. And in the following months, fate, history and circumstance would steer him onto the narrow path to the priesthood. It was a route that soon began to reverse his losses, equipping him first with the church's version of a family and then with a university education.
In the end, the church also gave him back his audience, a far bigger one than he'd ever imagined as an actor. In 1978 Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in 4 centuries, spiritual leader of the world's 1 billion Catholics.
Now, nearly 17 years after his installation, Pope John Paul is due to arrive today in Baltimore as part of the latest tour by history's most well-traveled papacy. But in all the years, all the miles and all the roaring crowds, the world hasn't yet pinned a label on this pope from Poland.
To his opponents on the issues of birth control and the ordination of female priests, he's the iron dictator of doctrinal conservatism, his mind locked rigidly in the past. Yet, his writings celebrated the joy of human sexuality well before the liberating upheavals of the late 1960s.
To Eastern Europe's Communists, still smarting from the way he helped sweep them from power in 1989, he is a tool of the West. Yet he also rails against the capitalist excesses of bankers and billionaires, siding time and again with the poor.
To Jews, he's the Catholic who finally had the courage to redress old wounds, a seeker of interfaith and interdenominational unity. Yet, critics within his own church see him as divisive and unsparing.
"It is absolutely a mistake to use the labels of conservative or progressive for this pope," says Marco Politi, who covers the Vatican for the Rome daily La Repubblica and is writing a biography on Pope John Paul. "The label doesn't tell you enough."
How, then, to best understand Karol Wojtyla? Those who have known him and watched him the longest say one must first come here, to the land where he grew up, lost his family and embraced the church. In Poland one may find the taproot for each major theme of his papacy, whether it is his traditional views on the role of women, his stress on the importance of the family, his devotion to the Virgin Mary, his concern for the downtrodden, his insights on the plight of the Jews, or his unquenchable yearning for an audience.
Spreading the Gospel
Catholicism in Poland is a realm where the rules are rarely open to discussion, much less change; a place where it follows quite naturally that because Jesus had no female disciples, women therefore may not be priests.
It is also the seat of the country's deepest feelings of nationalism. As Poles have endured more than a thousand years of upheaval and suffering, often at the hands of foreign empires, the church has been the country's unbreakable spine.
"Faith is a gift instilled by God," says the Rev. Kazimierz Suder, parish priest in the pope's hometown of Wadowice. "But faith here in Poland has never gone for long without being tested by the Turks, the Tatars, the Swedes, the Austrians, the Nazis, the ++ Communists or whoever else. And in the early part of this century, when there was not even a Polish state because of the partitioning [among three empires], the only stable factor was people's relationship with their faith and with their Catholic parish."
Father Suder sits in a darkened room of his church on a rainy fall morning. Just out his window and across a narrow street is the building where the future pope was born and lived his first 18 years.
Wadowice is near the old fault lines of the last partition, and Pope John Paul's father, Karol Wojtyla Sr., was an Austrian army conscript before joining the army of the new Poland after World War I. By the time Karol Jr. was born two years later, his father was a lieutenant and the army was enjoying its first great triumphs in fending off an invasion of the new Soviet Union.
Young Karol grew up steeped in the intertwined traditions of nationalism and Catholicism, drawing strength from both when his mother died before his ninth birthday. From then on, a dominant figure in his life was the Virgin Mary, whose image is displayed in so many Polish homes and roadside shrines. Spiritually, she became something of a surrogate mother for the young Karol Wojtyla, papal scholars say.
A few years later, his older brother died, and at age 12 he was left with only his father. Already he was well-schooled in the fragile nature of the family; as pontiff, he would lash out against any force he perceived as a threat to the family, whether communism, materialism, war, poverty or abortion.
By his senior year in high school he developed a flair for acting and public speaking. A visiting archbishop was so impressed he asked the school chaplain if the boy might be material for the priesthood.
No chance, the chaplain replied. The boy wanted to be an actor, and his mentor was teacher Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk.
"To Mr. Kotlarczyk, the whole idea of theater was not just art for art's sake," says the Rev. Mieczyslaw Malinski, a Krakow priest and writer who has known Pope John Paul since their teens. "The idea was to use the beauty of art to educate people and make them better."
At 18, Karol Jr. and his father moved to a small apartment in Krakow, where the young man enrolled in the Jagiellonian University. The following year the world changed. Germany invaded Poland.
The university closed. Theater groups were banned. He was forced to take a job at a rock quarry, a one-hour walk from his home, though he still usually made the effort to stop by the cathedral for evening Mass.
It was in this climate that he met Jan Tyranowski, a man with blunt questions and a mysterious manner. In a city where Nazis regularly rounded up people for concentration camps, such bold curiosity could be unsettling. Father Malinski, who also met Mr. Tyranowski around this time, recalls:
"He [Mr. Tyranowski] came up to me and said he'd seen me around. He said, 'Will you come with me?' and I thought for sure: Gestapo. So we're walking along, and he asks me if I want to join this group called the Living Rosary, and I thought, I'll join anything, because I thought he was about to take me away."
The concept of the Living Rosary was simple. Each member spread the Gospel to 15 others, who in turn reached 15 more. This spiritual pyramid scheme grew right under the noses of the Germans, and for Karol Wojtyla, it was a revelation.
"He began to realize he was having an enormous influence on the lives of these people," Father Malinski says. "It was the first time he realized that maybe instead of trying to achieve this goal through art, through theater, he might also do it through the priesthood."
But the ledger of Karol Wojtyla's life would have to record a final devastating loss before he would commit himself to the church. In the year after his first meeting with Mr. Tyranowski, he arrived home one evening to find his father dead.
"For six months he couldn't bring himself to move back in,"
Father Malinski says. "Every day he made the 45-minute walk to his father's tomb. I don't know if I would say it made him more of an adult, because he was always very serious. But it was such a shock for him."
After that, he became more and more involved with the Living Rosary, Father Malinski says, until "finally it got to the point where he had to have a talk with Mr. Kotlarczyk, his old mentor. He said, 'Well, don't sign me up for the next play because I want to go into the seminary.'
"And Kotlarczyk said, 'Are you crazy? Somebody with your talent and your ability? Here you have a chance to work and be with people from the intelligentsia, from the upper spheres of society, and you want to be some old priest who's going to convert old ladies to the Catholic faith. They're going to stick you in some parish in the countryside, and you're going to waste your life."
The seminary had been closed by the Nazis, so he began his studies in secret, narrowly escaping several Gestapo roundups. Entire Jewish families from his hometown of Wadowice began disappearing into the machinery of the Nazi death camps. Auschwitz was only a 90-minute drive away. Later his memories would fill with the lost smiles of Jewish boys who had been his soccer teammates and Jewish girls who had played his leading ladies on stage.
He also witnessed the anti-Semitism of other Poles and suffered with everyone else from the Vatican's deafening silence. Pope Pius XII never spoke out in protest against the Nazi regime of murder, even though he had been advised in general terms of what was happening and even though Catholics were often victims.
After the war, Karol Wojtyla completed his studies at the seminary, and in 1946 he was ordained as a priest. He then traveled to Rome for more study, departing with an important piece of advice: study foreign languages. He vigorously tackled the challenge. Besides the requisite Latin and Italian, he learned English, French, German and Spanish, further widening his potential audience.
For his doctoral thesis, he wrote about St. John of the Cross, the Spanish poet and mystic who had written of achieving spiritual union with God through prayer, faith and love. It was a choice that followed quite naturally from the fierce devotion found in Poland.
'Queen of Poland'
If the mind of Polish Catholicism can be said to reside in the academic halls of Krakow, its heart beats strongest in the city of Czestochowa, site of the Jasna Gora Monastery and its shrine of the Black Madonna. Although the cult of Mary has long been a part of Catholicism, in Poland it is an aspect of the faith that overshadows all others, and that is especially true at Jasna Gora.
On any date of the church calendar associated with the Virgin Mary, thousands of pilgrims come to pay homage to a darkened portrait of the Virgin said to have been painted from life by St. Luke on wood from Jesus' home (although tests have shown it is no older than the sixth century).
On the morning of Sept. 8, the birthday of the Virgin Mary, several thousand pilgrims gather on a green slope below the monastery, kneeling in dewy grass under low clouds. Facing them from above on the monastery wall is a large banner quoting Pope John Paul II: "The family is the way of the church and the nation."
Inside, long lines inch slowly toward the chapel of the Black Madonna, where the walls gleam with thousands of offerings from down through the years - gold hearts, crutches, canes, leg braces and white guiding sticks of the blind, all tendered by past pilgrims in hopes of a miracle.
Approaching the altar, the pilgrims pass beneath a painting of the siege of Czestochowa by the Swedes in 1655, when the city managed to hold out against all odds. The townspeople credited their salvation to the Black Madonna, and in later years the clergy proclaimed her Queen of Poland. The pilgrims kneel as they near the altar, scuffling on their knees past the candle-lighted Virgin, crossing themselves and reaching out, some with tears streaming down their cheeks.
Janina Piatec, 82, emerges from the chapel beaming, having completed her annual pilgrimage. She credits the Black Madonna with cures and rescues, saying, "I have received a lot of grace and favors because of Our Lady here. I live because of it."
To such worshipers, a holy icon "has something of the physical presence of the person depicted," says Father Malinski. It is an Eastern phenomenon, he says, and a brand of devotion that tends to go hand in glove with theological conservatism. "This is something that is very difficult for people in the United States or in Western Europe to understand."
It was from this tradition, with images evocative of medieval Catholicism, that Karol Wojtyla took his beliefs. He has visited Jasna Gora several times from boyhood into adulthood, returning also as pope, and he quickly made the cult of the Virgin Mary a major part of his papacy. His papal coat of arms carries a prominent "M" for Mary, and his papal motto, "Totus Tuus" ("entirely yours"), is directed to her as well.
But Karol Wojtyla did not limit his viewpoint to the church's Eastern horizons as he began rising in the church hierarchy. Nor did he shy from so-called "modern" thought.
As a young bishop in 1962, he published the book "Love and Responsibility," a surprise best seller in Poland. Not only did it discuss the importance of sexual love and advocate equality between husband and wife, it also was something of a practical manual, describing female sexual organs and charting fertility cycles.
"Of course, he puts this all in the frame of the eternal marriage," says Mr. Politi, the biographer. "But the fact that he touches on the subject at all is very modern."
In 1964 he became archbishop of Krakow, and in 1967 he was installed as cardinal. Those jobs required him to become a commander in the church's Cold War with communism, a struggle in which the authorities seemed to hold all the weapons. But Poland's long centuries of religious nationalism served him well, and he was able to win now and then. His biggest victory came when the government finally relented to Catholic populism by allowing a church to be built in the new industrial town of Nowa Huta, which authorities had hoped to keep free of religion.
On Aug. 6, 1978, an urgent summons arrived from Rome. Pope Paul VI was dead, ending a 15-year papacy. Karol Wojtyla and his fellow cardinals chose yet another Italian as successor, but 33 days later Pope John Paul I died after suffering a heart attack. The Cardinals met again. Unable to reach a consensus on another Italian, they decided on the eighth ballot to look elsewhere for the first time since 1523.
They chose the 58-year-old Karol Wojtyla from Poland.
A moral mission
From the first moments of his papacy, when he electrified the crowd in St. Peter's Square by addressing it strongly in Italian, it was clear that this was a pope who not only could work an audience but was ready, willing and able to take his show on the road.
In an age of television, the camera loved him. With his smile and vigor, how could it not? He kissed babies and shook hands with a charisma beyond that of any politician. And when he wasn't plunging into crowds he was plunging down a snowy slope on his skis or a frothing river in his kayak, driven by a sense that the world, not just the church, was his mission.
He saved his first blockbuster performance for Poland.
It came in June 1979, on his first papal visit home. More than 4 million people filled a Krakow park, and the simple fact of their gathering made them realize their strength and potential.
The Communist authorities realized it, too. Raymond L. Flynn, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, says the Communist Party leader, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, later told him that "he knew then there was no way communism was going to survive in
Poland with a Polish pope."
Fourteen months later, the Solidarity labor movement began in the shipyards of Gdansk, setting the machinery into motion that would topple the regime in 1989. Timothy Garton Ash, a respected commentator on Eastern Europe, later wrote that if there was one moment that triggered the end of Eastern European communism, "the pope's first great pilgrimage to Poland was that turning point."
Since then, Pope John Paul has taken his messages to places no pope had been - literally and figuratively - not only by traveling to more than 100 countries and to every diocese in Italy (a feat never managed by an Italian pope), but also by taking on unprecedented chores.
"John Paul II has succeeded is making the papacy very relevant in the modern world," Mr. Politi says. "What the Vatican does is very important now. People ask, 'What will the Vatican do in Yugoslavia? What will it do at the World Population Conference, or in the Third World?'"
When a territorial dispute between Argentina and Chile reached an impasse in 1978, the pope agreed to mediate. When both communism and capitalism seemed to be failing the world's poor, he pointedly criticized both and called for "a third way." When conflict in the Balkans flared, he headed for the former Yugoslavia.
He has reached out to other faiths, most notably by healing the church's old rift with Judaism. His papacy opened diplomatic ties to Israel in 1993 and a year later held an extraordinary Holocaust memorial ceremony at the Vatican. But perhaps more important was that his wartime background gave him the understanding necessary to convince Jews of his sincerity.
He frequently dispatches papal representatives on missions into the secular world. Early on that meant sending a cardinal to gather front-line reports in war-torn Lebanon. Lately it has meant sending his chief spokesman, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, to world conferences on population and women's rights. The zeal to prevail at such events against measures on contraception and abortion rights has produced alliances with fundamentalist Muslim regimes with poor records on human rights.
"I think that the main goal in these years was to show that the Roman Catholic Church does not have to be ashamed about the things in which it believes and also to be very active on the social level, to give fuel to the motor of the church," Mr. Politi says.
The pope's critics will admit that he has done just that. But after revving the motor, they say, he threw the gears into reverse. And while his worldwide audience has grown ever larger, the core of opposition within the church has grown more angry and disenchanted.
Papal dictums and appointments have quashed all immediate hope of loosening church bans on contraception, and he remains strenuously opposed to allowing priests to marry. Despite recent speeches advocating "equal rights between men and women in every aspect of life," he insists that women cannot possibly be priests.
But adversaries seem most disturbed by the way his quest for doctrinal purity has sought to silence other points of view. Catholic university professors who don't toe the Vatican line are declared "unfit for teaching" and purged. The pope has appointed loyalist bishops in some dioceses to succeed more independent predecessors.
Opposition to such tactics found its voice in the 1989 "Cologne Declaration," a statement of Western clerics objecting to the Vatican's tightening grip on every realm of Catholic thought.
But the crusade marches on. As of this month, for example, all 2,300 employees of the Vatican bureaucracy, including lay members, will be subject to dismissal if they have an abortion, get a divorce, use contraceptives or associate with any organization "incompatible with the doctrine and discipline of the church."
Prayer and performance
Yet, the world at large keeps demanding encore performances from Pope John Paul, and the public demands don't end when he returns to Rome. In fact, says Dr. Navarro-Valls, "I don't know what is more tiring, a trip or staying here. The schedule here is always 16 or 17 hours a day."
A typical day, Dr. Navarro-Valls says, begins with prayers shortly after 5 a.m. and doesn't end until late at night. Even mealtime is part of the job, with guests for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The Rev. Robert Graham, a Jesuit writer and papal historian who has attended a few papal meals, says: "I don't recall that Paul VI ever had dinner with anybody. And if I had a schedule like [Pope John Paul's], at the end of the day I would go into my quarters, take my shoes off, and take a shot of whiskey and call it a day."
Orchestra director Gilbert Levine, who has met the pope several times, offers a glimpse of what a visit to his chambers is like.
Mr. Levine's first meeting with the pope came in January 1988, when he was summoned to the Vatican shortly after becoming artistic director and principal conductor of the Krakow Philharmonic. It was odd for an American Jew to have landed the job, especially with the Communists still in power. Pope John Paul wanted to meet him, not only to receive a front-line report from Poland but to establish ties with the man who would one day be the maestro for the papal concert to commemorate the Holocaust.
Mr. Levine and his wife arrived in the morning. Already a bit intimidated by the history behind the pontiff's title, they were led through "a labyrinth chain of rooms," he says. "We started in a large hall that holds hundreds, then went on through room after room, all splendidly decorated but quite dark, because this is the interior of a castle
"Finally we came to a room that was very dim, then a monsignor came through a back door, pointed only at me, and thrust me through a door into a room that was very brightly lit, with palms and a marble floor. I was almost blinded by the light, and at first I thought that the room was empty. Then I looked to my right and the pope was there, just sitting at a desk."
For bishops and cardinals arriving to discuss thorny church matters, Pope John Paul can be inscrutable, listening in silence before parting with a cryptic remark that had better be interpreted correctly. But other guests describe the pope as an inquisitive, good-humored host whose interests span as widely as his realm. Whether the subject is astronomy or the latest development in the Balkans, Pope John Paul wants to stay abreast.
"There is no small talk at all," Mr. Levine says. "He is laser-like in his discussions, very focused and direct. I guess he has to be. He's got a lot on his mind."
This ability to cut to the heart of matters has given him enough time to continue his writing, which has resulted since the 1950s in the publication of poems, plays and last year's best-selling volume of essays, "Crossing the Threshold of Hope."
At times of prayer, his ability to focus turns inward. Those around him say it is almost as if he moves into another dimension.
Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler recalls being with Pope John Paul in Columbia, S.C., in 1987, when the pontiff was preparing to address a large crowd in a football stadium. As they stood waiting for the event to begin, Cardinal Keeler says, "I turned to talk to him, and he was just completely absorbed in prayer. When he moves to a time of prayer, he seems to be totally oblivious of everything going on around him and is in a deep communion with the Lord."
During the past year, health concerns have often loomed larger than either news of the pope's travels or of the latest controversy. Not since the pontiff survived an assassination attempt in 1981 has the Vatican heard so many whispers about papal succession.
No longer does Pope John Paul hike or ski. He is noticeably slower and stiffer, and often seems to wince in pain. The Vatican attributes this to nothing more than the aftereffects of hip surgery last year.
Skeptics suspect something more, and each public appearance has become an occasion for gauging new signs of weariness. Vatican watchers will pay close attention to his every move in Baltimore.
Cardinal Keeler, however, will be more interested in gauging the movements and responses of the crowds. He'll be looking for the sort of impact he remembers so vividly from a papal visit to Denver on World Youth Day in 1993 that drew tens of thousands of teen-agers.
"Their response was so spontaneous," he says. "They said afterward it was a moment in their lives when they saw a new meaning to their faith."
And now, with Baltimore awaiting, Pope John Paul stands ready to again widen his audience. His lines may be uplifting to some, disagreeable to others. Whichever the case, his message will play to another packed house.
The devout young actor from Poland couldn't have asked for anything more.