The educational pilgrimage of St. John Paul II and its impact on the world

Karol Wojtyła had two convictions that shaped his papal ministry and his thinking about education: young people want to be challenged to heroism and they want to love with a pure love, a love that makes oneself into a gift for another even as one receives the gift of another.

Father Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, is pictured reading in a kayak in this photo dated 1955. (CNS photo)

Editor’s note: The Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based public policy research center, has just published a groundbreaking study, A Vision of Hope: Catholic Schooling in Massachusetts. The book explores the history and achievements of Catholic education in the Bay State, empirically demonstrates the superior performance of Catholic schools in educating poor and at-risk children, and makes a strong case for the imperative of parental choice legislation in the reform of American elementary and secondary education.

The Pioneer Institute asked papal biographer George Weigel to provide the book’s foreword, by reflecting on Pope St. John Paul II’s own educational experience and his teaching on education. The foreword is reprinted here with the permission of the Pioneer Institute.

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Pope St. John Paul II revered the life of the mind and had a profound respect for the educators who helped ignite the flame of learning in their students. That reverence was born in part from the challenging circumstances of his educational journey as both student and university teacher.

After displaying exceptional intellectual gifts in elementary and secondary school, Karol Wojtyła had begun what promised to be a brilliant university career when the venerable Jagiellonian University in Cracow was shuttered by the Nazis in 1939; the university quickly reconstituted itself as an underground institution, but many of its distinguished professors would die in concentration camps during World War II. After the war, Wojtyła took his first doctorate in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelicum,” and later completed a second doctorate at the Jagiellonian; immediately after he received his degree, the university’s theology department was closed by the communist government of Poland. From 1954 until his election as pope, Wojtyła taught at the Catholic University of Lublin: in those days, the only genuinely free institution of higher learning between Berlin and Vladivostok. These exceptional experiences of education-under-pressure deepened Karol Wojtyła’s love of learning, his respect for the craft of teaching, and his commitment to courage in thinking boldly.

As pope, John Paul II issued two apostolic constitutions on the reform of Catholic higher education (Sapientia Christiana [Christian Wisdom] and Ex Corde Ecclesiae [From the Heart of the Church]) and dedicated his thirteenth encyclical, Fides et Ratio [Faith and Reason], to a penetrating exploration of the ways in which religious belief and the intellectual life are mutually enriching. Those magisterial documents repay a close reading. But for the purposes of this important book on Catholic schools in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, it may be more useful to take a narrative approach and walk with John Paul II through his educational experiences, with an eye toward drawing some lessons from that journey for our own time.

Classical education in Wadowice: Culture drives history

Decades of “Polish jokes” have blinded too many people to the fact that Poland has long been home to a rich and sophisticated high culture, which played a crucial role in keeping the idea of “Poland” alive after Russia, Prussia, and Austria completed the vivisection of the Polish state in the Third Polish Partition of 1795. For the next 123 years. the word “Poland” disappeared from the map of Europe. But during that time of political exile, Polish literature, Polish painting, Polish theater, Polish graphic arts, Polish linguistics, and Polish achievements in philosophy and mathematics helped Poland-the-nation survive the destruction of Poland-the-state. Thus when the Second Polish Republic emerged from the chaos of a broken Europe at the end of World War I, its schools could draw on a well-developed high culture in a variety of fields. Young Karol Wojtyła, born in the first years of the first independent Poland in a century and a quarter, was a beneficiary of that high culture and the educational system it shaped.

He enjoyed an excellent classical education in Wadowice, the provincial town some thirty-five miles west of Cracow where he grew up. There, Latin and Greek were assumed to be part of any proper secondary education, as were demanding studies in the other liberal arts; the memorization and public recitation of poetry was another feature of this form of education that would later serve the future pope well. And at the same time Wojtyła and his classmates in Wadowice’s elementary and secondary schools were immersed in the study of Polish history and culture, the Catholic youngsters in the town received a rigorous catechetical education before receiving their first Holy Communion and the sacrament of Confirmation. Wadowice was 20% Jewish, and the town’s reputation for interreligious tolerance also left its mark on its young men and women, and none more so than the son of Wadowice who would reconfigure the landscape of the Jewish-Catholic dialogue as pope.

In his first twelve years of schooling in Wadowice, a seed of insight was planted in Karol Wojtyła, and from that seed would grow an idea central to his papal social doctrine and his papal action on the world stage: the conviction that culture, not politics or economics, is the most dynamic force in history. Culture can be regenerating (as it proved to be in making possible Poland’s reclamation of its independence in 1918); culture can be destructive (as the decadent culture of Weimar Germany proved to be in midwifing the Third Reich). But one way or another, culture shapes political and economic life, for good or for ill.

He would not have put it in these terms when he left Wadowice in 1938 to begin his university studies in Cracow, but his education in Wadowice had already set him on the intellectual path by which he would confound the Jacobin heresy (politics, understood as the quest for power) drives history and the Marxist heresy (history is driven by the exhaust fumes of economic processes). In his mature thought, he would insist that culture is the driver of history over time – and at the heart of a regenerative culture is its capacity to instill in students a love of learning and a reverence for the truth.

The Jagiellonian University and World War II: Education as resistance to tyranny

The first-class classical education that Karol Wojtyła received at the elementary and secondary levels was one expression of the potency of a Polish high culture that had displayed great regenerative force in helping liberate his country. Sadly, that power was soon put to another test a mere two decades after Poland regained its independence. For after the Nazi and Soviet invasions of September 1939, “Poland” once again disappeared from maps of Europe: the country was partitioned between two totalitarian monstrosities, one part of it absorbed into an expanded Nazi Germany, another part into the Soviet Union, and a third part left as a killing ground in which the Poles were to be worked into oblivion for the greater glory of the Thousand Year Reich, while Jews from all over Europe and others the Nazis deemed Untermenschen were slaughtered by the millions in extermination camps.

Before that horror descended upon Poland, Karol Wojtyła was only permitted one normal year of university education, during which he undertook demanding studies in Polish philology. At the same time, he recounts in his memoir Gift and Mystery, he was absorbed by a “passion for theater.” He had begun writing plays and acting in Wadowice, and in Cracow he pursued both passions, acting in student productions at the Jagiellonian and composing dramas of his own. After the university was closed by the Nazis, and amidst his work as a manual laborer in a quarry and a chemical factory, Wojtyła was a central figure in the underground “Rhapsodic Theater,” a part of the cultural resistance to the Nazi occupation. The Rhapsodists, as they were known, sponsored clandestine performances of the great works of Polish drama and recitations of classical Polish poetry, all to keep the idea of “Poland” alive so that, post-war, a new, independent Poland could be established on a firm cultural foundation. The experience of wartime Poland – “humiliation at the hands of evil,” as John Paul once put it to me – and of resistance through drama and literature would have a lasting effect on the young Pole, and ultimately on the Church and the world.

Sir John Gielgud once remarked that Pope John Paul II had the best sense of timing he had ever seen; Sir Alec Guinness remembered John Paul’s exceptionally sonorous speaking voice. The skills recognized to those two great actors were certainly honed by Karol Wojtyła’s theatrical experience in Cracow, before and during World War II. Yet the clandestine student/actor/playwright took from his “passion for theater” more than a set of useful skills: he took a view of the world and the moral life. He learned from his experience of the drama that life itself has an inherently “dramatic” structure, for each of us lives every day in the gap between the-person-I-am and the-person-I-ought-to-be. To shorten that gap is the work of a lifetime, informed by conscience and reinforced by grace. That dramatic process will lead to human flourishing, happiness, and ultimately beatitude if the “actors” we all are cooperate, through both faith and reason, with the truths that are built into the world and into us – by a loving Creator, Christians would say, who also enters the drama of history as Redeemer, to set the human drama back on its proper course.

University chaplain: Creating zones of freedom for students

After his ordination to the priesthood in 1946 and two years of graduate study in Rome, Karol Wojtyła returned to Cracow, where Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha directed him to create a new ministry to university students at the height of Stalinist repression in Poland. This was dangerous work, as organized Catholic activities with young people were banned by the communist regime. But Father Wojtyła was very good at it, and his experience as a university chaplain left an indelible mark on his understanding that true education forms good habits of the heart as well as useful skills and good habits of the mind.

He organized clandestine seminars in which students could read and discuss great classical and Christian texts and thus find an antidote to communist propaganda. He broke centuries of clericalist taboos by going skiing, hiking, camping, and kayaking with his young friends, holiday trips on which he created zones of freedom in which anything and everything could be discussed openly. And in this mutual exchange of intellectual and spiritual gifts, he formed strong young Catholics under exceptionally difficult conditions, even as those young people were forming him into one of the most creative, dynamic young priests in the world.

From this chaplaincy experience, Karol Wojtyła took two convictions that would shape his papal ministry and his thinking about education.

First, he came to understand that young people want to be challenged to heroism. Thus when, as pope, he created World Youth Days around the world, he repeated time and again a challenge to the millions of young adults who flocked to be with him: Never, ever settle for less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that the grace of God makes possible in your life. You will fail; we all do. But that is no reason to lower the bar of expectation. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, seek reconciliation; but never, ever settle for anything less that the greatness that is waiting to be born from within you.

And secondly, Wojtyła learned from his young friends in Cracow (and later in his work as a university professor at Lublin) that young people want to love with a pure love, a love that makes oneself into a gift for another even as one receives the gift of another. From this conviction would grow Wojtyła’s groundbreaking book on human sexuality, Love and Responsibility, and his even more creative Theology of the Body, both of which have had a considerable impact on the Church, especially in religious education and sacramental preparation.

The Catholic University of Lublin and the papacy: Rescuing humanism

By the time Karol Wojtyła was elected pope in 1978, he had spent fourteen years teaching moral philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin. From that work, which included undergraduate and graduate teaching, the supervision of doctoral dissertations, and intense intellectual interactions with his faculty colleagues, Wojtyła came to another seminal conviction: the crisis of modernity is a crisis in the idea of the human person. Communism reduced the person to an automaton, a mere cog in an irresistible historical process; that was easily refuted, not least by the incompetence and brutality of communist governance. The real danger to the future, Wojtyła seemed to intuit, was utilitarianism, which reduced the human person to a bundle of desires-to-be-satisfied. Whether the desires in question were economic or sexual, that dumbing-down of our humanity was not only personally demeaning; it was socially and politically destructive. So in the late modern and post-modern worlds, the Catholic Church had to propose, and to display in the lives of its people, a much nobler view of the human person – a revitalized humanism that looks to Christ as the model of the truly human.

That revitalized humanism, in turn, had to be informed by a fresh conception of the moral life. As modern philosophy after Kant and Hume had decayed into thinking about thinking (and later into an even more self-absorbed thinking-about-thinking-about-thinking), ethics had come unglued from reality, Wojtyła and his Lublin colleagues believed. So philosophy, and the Church, had to help the world rediscover and explain some things, known to classical Greek philosophy and confirmed by biblical revelation, that make an ennobling humanism possible: There are moral truths built into the world and into us; we can know those truths by reason (and, Christians would add, by revelation); knowing those truths discloses our duties and the path to genuine human flourishing.

During his papacy, John Paul II would insist that the Magna Carta of the moral life, as Christians understand it, is the Beatitudes. Moral rules or laws are guardrails that guide the journey to beatitude. But those laws and rules will only make sense in contemporary culture if they’re presented as moral guides built into the human condition and ready to be discovered, not as laws and rules imposed on us by an arbitrary God. God did not leave us alone to figure out the good life by ourselves; as John Paul II put it at Mt. Sinai in 2000, the moral law was written by God on the human heart before it was written on tablets of stone. Understood in those terms, the moral life becomes the expression of an authentic humanism, and education rightly understood empowers students to discern, and live by, those guides to happiness and beatitude.

Karol Wojtyła’s experience as a university educator also left an imprint on his encyclical Fides et Ratio. Faith needs reason, he wrote there, in order to purify faith from superstition. For its part, reason needs faith, or else it will decay into a stale positivism that eventually leads to radical skepticism and nihilism, neither of which is good for human solidarity, much less for democracy and self-governance. The task of education, John Paul II would insist, is to lift us out of the slough of skepticism and relativism and into the bright uplands of the truth. Educators best do that, he would add, by being attentive to both the life of the mind and the life of the soul.

Empowerment for excellence

Viewed through the lens of John Paul II’s educational journey, the continuing relevance of his experience and his teaching for 21st-century Catholic schools should come into focus.

Catholic schools must be schools for empowerment: schools that begin their work from the premise that students of all backgrounds, and especially students from poor families, are people with potential. That potential – spiritual, intellectual, economic, cultural, and civic – will be unleashed when students are formed morally as well as educated intellectually, when students are empowered to become men and woman of character as well as men of women of competence and culture.

Understanding that in the past, Catholic schools have become the best anti-poverty program in the history of the Church in the United States.

Building on that understanding in the future, Catholic schools can lead in the reform that American education so manifestly needs.


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About George Weigel 364 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

5 Comments

    • Yes, very good, in direct proportion to the very bad way he continues to discredit his entire career by ignoring the deconstruction of the Church by Francis.

      • Pope Francis is working, with some success, to fulfill the mandates of the Second Vatican Council and has carried on the best of Saint John Paul II’s work in ecumenical and interreligious progress, especially Catholic-Jewish Relations, which was a particular interest of Saint John Paul II.

        • There is no such thing as “interreligious progress,” nor should there be. John Paul disgraced himself with many of his ecumenical exercises, but he never made war on Catholic doctrine as Francis has, a Pope who outright ridicules the very notion of immutable truth and promotes moral relativism, syncretism, and process theology, the notion that God is still in the process of learning how to be God. He would have made Teilhard de Chardin blush.

  1. Weigel, still living in the 1980s… As the believing Catholics are heading for the catacombs, George will be looking around for an audience and further book sales in the Francis church of neo-pagans.

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