How Pope John Paul II Became a Philosopher-Theologian
When John Paul II was still Karol Wojtyła, a teenager in high school, he was so good at public speaking that he was chosen to give the welcome address to a very special dignitary visiting the school one day.
Prince Adam Stefan Stanisław Bonfatiusz Józef Sapieha (that’s a mouthful), the Archbishop of Krakow and one of the most dignified members of Polish aristocracy, came for a visit. When he heard the eloquent speech given by Wojtyła, he asked one of his teachers if the lad was headed for the seminary. His professor replied that Karol had designs on going to Jagiellonian University to study philology (linguistics).
Momentarily disappointed, thinking the church was losing a potential intellectual jewel for the priesthood, the archbishop merely replied, “Too bad.” Little did he know then that divine providence had another plan for Karol Wojtyła.
His love of linguistics
As an incoming freshman, Karol Wojtyła had a heavy load. He studied not only Polish grammar, phonetics, and etymology but also the Old Slavonic and Russian languages. He loved language because it conveyed to others what was in the mind and heart of the writer or speaker of that tongue.
Language is the cornerstone of civilization, because it unites individuals and ideas. Without language, or without a means of communication, no society, no community can exist. Many occupying powers impose a foreign language on a conquered nation and often outlaw the native dialect to prevent a national identity. Yet, a common language, even if foreign, would sometimes have the opposite effect and unite people of the same nation who initially spoke completely different dialects and who, beforehand, could not easily communicate with those outside their own region.
John Paul II not only had a talent for learning languages, he truly loved being able to communicate with others in their native tongue. He understood the philosophy of language and showed how to communicate verbally and nonverbally throughout his pontificate. A multilingual pope who traveled the world made the catholic (universal) part of his job and of his church have more meaning than ever before.
Showing a keen mind for linguistics, the young Karol developed a love of theater and poetry. In both of these, language was at its best. Polish plays and poems not only showed pride in the motherland but also instilled appreciation of the culture, art, and history of the people who lived in that country.
He even helped form a student theater group known as Studio 39, and it was there that he felt an attraction to the stage. Even though he was not known as a “ham” actor seeking attention and applause at every opportunity, Wojtyła nevertheless recognized the power of presence. As a linguist, he knew the importance and effect of words. As an actor, he knew the importance of how those words were spoken and even the impact of saying nothing at all, just allowing the symbols and gestures to speak for themselves.
Secret study of philosophy
In 1942, seminaries were officially closed like the colleges and universities, so Wojtyła pursued a covert underground education. Hidden in the residence of Archbishop Sapieha of Krakow, he discovered the sublime beauty of philosophy. He learned about the great philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas.
He was ordained a priest on November 1, 1946; two weeks later, he was sent to Rome to continue his studies and earn his first doctorate. His bishop sent him to the Angelicum, a seminary run by the Dominicans (brothers and priests of a religious community who follow the spirituality of St. Dominic from the 13th century, a contemporary of St. Francis of Assisi). St. Thomas Aquinas was not only the preeminent theologian of the Catholic Church, but also one of its finest philosophers and he happened to be a Dominican. No mystery then that Father Wojtyła would be immersed in scholastic philosophy, sometimes called Thomism, after Thomas Aquinas.
He threw himself into understanding such complex topics as objective realism, Natural Moral Law, and the three levels of truth (scientific, philosophical, and theological). So, to Karol Wojtyła, science and faith were not at odds with each other. Instead, they were two ways of examining the same reality.
Wojtyła defended his dissertation and passed his examinations with flying colors in 1948 but could not get the degree from his alma mater, the Angelicum. He was too poor to have his doctoral dissertation printed, and the seminary required that the dissertation be printed prior to conferring the degree. When he returned to Poland, Father Wojtyła resubmitted his paper to Jagiellonian University, and it awarded him a doctorate in theology. He earned a second doctorate in theology in 1954.
Thomistic philosophy and theology and other philosophies shaped the mind of Karol Wojtyła. Whether it was abortion, euthanasia, contraception, or the death penalty; economic, political, and social justice; he was always on the same page: promoting and defending what is good for humans, individually and communally. John Paul II believed that the ultimate good was the happiness found in knowing and doing the Will of God.