DETROIT– Born Karol Józef Wojtyła, Pope John Paul II was Pontiff for almost 27 years and he was one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century. John Paul II is recognized as helping to end Communist rule in his native Poland and beyond.
He had both tremendous success as an ambassador and also great controversy with not reigning in the clergy regarding child sex abuse scandals. A special goal of his papacy was to reposition the Catholic Church for the future. He attempted to form new religious alliances that helped better understanding among Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Pope John Paul II travelled extensively and met with believers from many divergent faiths. The well-travelled world leader visited 129 countries during his pontificate. At the World Day of Prayer for Peace, held in Assisi on October 27, 1986, more than 120 representatives and leaders of different religions and Christian denominations spent a day together in special prayer.
His seven trips to America are well documented, (including two stopovers in Alaska) but it was the special relationship with the Italian people that sometimes gets overlooked. They attached with him and acknowledged great respect by simply addressing him as Papa(Father) and Il Papa Buono (the good pope).
There are many extraordinary anecdotes of his life’s journey to the papacy. In post-World War II Poland and Stalinist-era dictates still in place, priests were not allowed to travel with students. This did not stop the future Pope from enjoying the outdoors and outings to the Zakopane Mountains. Father Wojtyła asked his younger companions to call him “Wujek” (Polish for “Uncle) to prevent outsiders from deducing he was a priest.
The nickname gained popularity among his followers. When in 1958, he was named auxiliary bishop of Kraków, his acquaintances expressed concern that this would cause him to change. Some feared the strain and bureaucracy of his position would alter his warmth. Wojtyła responded to his friends, “Wujek will remain Wujek,” and he continued to live a simple life, shunning the most elaborate trappings that came with his position as Bishop. His beloved Polish nickname stayed with Wojtyła for his entire life and continues to be affectionately used in Poland. It may sound like a simple salutation but in Poland “Wujek” carries great admiration and respect.