Karol Wojtyła Is Named Poland’s Youngest Bishop

In 1958, Pope Pius XII selected Karol Josef Wojtyła (the future Pope John Paul II) as Poland’s youngest bishop and thereby set him on a course of action that would in time lead to the end of European communism.

Summary of Event

Although at the time it did not seem to be an event of great magnitude, the naming of Polish scholar and writer Karol Wojtyła as Poland’s youngest bishop by Pope Pius XII in 1958 came to be considered a monumental decision that greatly influenced the history of the twentieth century. Wojtyła, who would become Pope John Paul II, has been ranked among the most vibrant and controversial leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, indeed of the world, in modern times. John Paul II[John Paul 02]
Roman Catholic Church;and Poland[Poland]
Poland;Catholic Church
[kw]Karol Wojty{lstrok}a Is Named Poland’s Youngest Bishop (July 4, 1958)[Karol Wojtyla]
[kw]Wojty{lstrok}a Is Named Poland’s Youngest Bishop, Karol (July 4, 1958)[Wojtyla]
[kw]Poland’s Youngest Bishop, Karol Wojty{lstrok}a Is Named (July 4, 1958)
[kw]Bishop, Karol Wojty{lstrok}a Is Named Poland’s Youngest (July 4, 1958)
John Paul II[John Paul 02]
Roman Catholic Church;and Poland[Poland]
Poland;Catholic Church
[g]Europe;July 4, 1958: Karol Wojty{lstrok}a Is Named Poland’s Youngest Bishop[05870]
[g]Poland;July 4, 1958: Karol Wojty{lstrok}a Is Named Poland’s Youngest Bishop[05870]
[c]Human rights;July 4, 1958: Karol Wojty{lstrok}a Is Named Poland’s Youngest Bishop[05870]
[c]Humanitarianism and philanthropy;July 4, 1958: Karol Wojty{lstrok}a Is Named Poland’s Youngest Bishop[05870]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;July 4, 1958: Karol Wojty{lstrok}a Is Named Poland’s Youngest Bishop[05870]
[c]Social issues and reform;July 4, 1958: Karol Wojty{lstrok}a Is Named Poland’s Youngest Bishop[05870]
John Paul II[John Paul 02]
Pius XII[Pius 12]
Gorbachev, Mikhail
Jaruzelski, Wojciech
Wa{lstrok}{eogon}sa, Lech[Walesa, Lech]

In the late 1930’s, Wojtyła was a student at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. During the German occupation of Poland, he was forced to become a manual laborer. In late 1942, he joined an underground seminary and was ordained four years after in 1946, the same year he went to study in Rome, just as the Soviet Union and the Communist Party Communist Party, Polish were taking complete control of Poland.

From the beginning Wojtyła denounced communism. In the early 1950’s, he began publishing poetry with allegorical outcries against communism. As a teacher and philosopher, the intellectually gifted Father Wojtyła made such a deep impression on the Polish people that he was appointed bishop of Kraków in 1958. The communists backed his nomination because he was regarded as intelligent and open-minded, someone they believed they could manipulate: After looking over the list of candidates for bishop, they backed Wojtyła, instead of the others who ranked higher, because they believed that he would be more manageable. General Jaruzelski, the former head of the Polish Communist Party, laughed at the irony after reading a rather poor evaluation of Wojtyła by the communists, who, the general himself realized, greatly underestimated the young priest’s abilities.

Wojtyła began a mission of subversion that contributed significancly to the ultimate collapse of European communism in the early 1990’s. Deeply conservative, Wojtyła’s adherence to profoundly traditional Church philosophy in an antireligious communist country appealed greatly to the Church and the Vatican, and he rose through Church ranks quickly. In 1964 he was named archbishop, and in 1967 he was made a cardinal. All the while, Wojtyła worked in Poland to gain concessions from the communists, and his support from the Polish public increased. Simultaneously, he contributed heavily to Vatican policy and became well known in Rome.

Despite an ever-tightening communist political regime, Wojtyła fought not only to maintain but also to increase religious freedom for Poland. In the process, he developed a reputation among the civil establishment as a fearsome adversary. As a bishop, he came to identify with Saint Stanisław Stanis{lstrok}aw, Saint[Stanislaw, Saint] (1030-1079), a bishop martyred by a tyrant king who was run out of town by the grieving populace. Wojtyła invoked Saint Stanisław in his sermons, to the chagrin of the communists, because Stanisław represented Polish resurrection. In addition, Wojtyła led the fight to have a church built in the new workers’ town of Nowa Huta, despite the communist government’s resistance. “We want God,” the people chanted as Wojtyła led them, and a permit to build the church was issued in 1958, the same year he became Poland’s youngest bishop. Wojtyła often spoke to the people in a subversive code. For instance, when he and they spoke of “Christ’s crucifixion” they were speaking of their own oppression.


Elected pope in 1978, Karol Wojtyła as John Paul II had a unique background from which to deal with the problems of the Church and an unparalleled understanding of the working of both the communist and Western worlds. In 1979, within months of becoming pope, he traveled to Poland to begin the process of moving a communist nation toward democracy. He supported the trade union movement called Solidarity, led by Lech Wałęsa, and inspired a revolution of ideas that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Everywhere he went the crowds chanted, “We want God. We want God.” This trip would be seen as the detonator for the explosive end of communism.

As archbishop of Kraków, Wojtyła had learned to deal diplomatically with the communist government of Poland, which he did with considerable skill, building up the Catholic Church’s moral influence and bringing more young Poles into the church—all this without directly challenging the atheistic doctrines of the state or the communists’ grip on power. Now, as the first Polish pope, he explained that his trouble with communism centered on what he viewed in philosophical terms as the destruction of an individual human being’s sacred, or God-given, right to liberty. He never questioned that communism would come to an end, only when it would meet its inevitable demise. In his effort to end communism, John Paul never ceased to deliver the Christian message regarding the primary dignity of the human person. His personal charisma brought him high acclaim and political influence, especially in Poland, where his public support of the Solidarity movement hastened the demise of communism. Millions of people spread the revolution, but it began with the pope’s trip home in 1979.

From this time onward, John Paul threw the weight of the Church behind Solidarity, which ultimately culminated in the disintegration of communism in Eastern Europe and then brought down the Soviet Union in 1990, ending the division of Europe and the Cold War, which had dominated the world since 1945. Subsequently, Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the Soviet Union, agreed that the fall of communism would have been impossible without the presence of John Paul.

John Paul II is universally considered one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century for his resistance to Soviet communism, for his opposition to war, and for the visible and active outreach of his papacy to ordinary people. Although both Catholics and non-Catholics continued to have difficulties with the Church’s stance toward birth control, abortion, and internal scandals that erupted toward the end of John Paul’s tenure, no one disputes that he will be remembered as one of the great popes of all time. Some religious scholars maintain that he will be remembered as the most politically influential pope since Saint Peter. John Paul II[John Paul 02]
Roman Catholic Church;and Poland[Poland]
Poland;Catholic Church

Further Reading

  • Allegri, Renzo. John Paul II: A Life of Grace. Cincinnati, Ohio: Servant Books, 2005. Presents the spiritual aspects of John Paul’s life leading up to the moment he became pope. Considers the pontiff also as a musician, poet, philosopher, and theoretician.
  • Greeley, Andrew. The Making of the Pope. New York: Little, Brown, 2005. Controversial priest Greeley sheds light on the politics of coalition-building and rumor-swapping within the highly secretive conclave that selects the pope by bringing to the task his decades of experience in the priesthood, his ability as a seasoned journalist, and the analytical perspective of a sociologist.
  • Noonan, Peggy. John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father. New York: Viking, 2005. Noonan calls John Paul “a titan of his century” who confronted Nazism, communism, and terrorism. She draws on her personal experience of John Paul as well as on scholarship and interviews with prominent Catholics.
  • O’Connor, Garry. Universal Father: A Life of Pope John Paul II. New York: Bloomsbury, 2005. Five years in the making, this book was noted by critics as a scrupulously researched portrait of the pontiff. In addition to covering John Paul’s political stances and influential trips, O’Connor also focuses on the inner man by providing analysis of his literary works.
  • Weigel, George. Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II. New York: HarperPerennial, 1999. A comprehensive biography of the pope, covering his commitment to Christian unity, the “People Power” revolution, papal visits, his work to subvert communism, concern for the youth of the world, and his revamping of the Vatican’s press office.

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