1. Back in his theater days, he literally saved the show with his phenomenal memory
We all know JPII had a passion for drama and literature, even as a young teenager. But what I didn’t know was that he saved the show once with his incredible memory.
One of the cast members in his production dropped out 2 days before opening night. And I guess they didn’t have understudies in those days?
But no sweat – young Karol’s absorbent mind had essentially understudied each and every person’s lines from the rehearsals, and he offered to take on an extra role. The show must go on!
2. On his camping trips with the youth group, he read The Screwtape Letters around the campfire.
Many of us know that Fr. Wojtyla loved spending time outdoors with the youth, while he was a parish priest in Poland and even later as a cardinal. The trips had to be covert since such outings were forbidden by the communist powers. They would go kayaking, canoeing, hiking, sometimes celebrating Mass on an overturned canoe.
And apparently, around the campfire at night, they would sing a little P&W and read from books, including C.S. Lewis’ classic The Screwtape Letters (which was published in 1942).
3. The Communists ironically wanted him to become archbishop of Krakow
While the communist government still allowed the Church in Poland to nominate its own candidates to replace the vacancy, they asserted the right to reject any candidates they didn’t like.
They continued to veto until they got their top pick: Karol Wojtyla
That awkward moment when the man you selected later becomes pope and then comes back to Poland to topple communism. Probably the worst underestimation in history ever.
4. He shoveled frozen crap.
JPII was never afraid to do the dirty work, or lower himself to the most humbling of tasks.
Shortly after the power shift in Poland from the Nazis to the Communists, Karol and his fellow seminarians were able to return to their seminary, which had fallen into an awful state of disrepair. Pipes were frozen, and the latrines were an absolute mess. Heaps of frozen excrement needed to be chopped up with shovels and wheeled away.
So next time you have a disgusting chore to take care of, just remember JPII has been there too.
5. He continued skiing until he was 73 years old
One of my favorite stories is of the 8-year old boy who happened to see JPII out on the slopes. They did a couple runs together, and the boy’s mom wouldn’t believe that her imaginative son had actually been skiing with the Pope – until he introduced himself to her.
6. He went to the moon and back 3 times during his lifetime
Well, the same distance anyway: 775,000 miles!
The man was on a mission, and he felt that his call as shepherd to a universal Church meant that he really needed to get out there and meet the universal flock.
“Aren’t I supposed to be pope for all the world?” he said.
7. What was the “happiest day of his life”?
According to himself, it was the day that he canonized Sister Faustina as the first saint of the new millennium.
His devotion to the Divine Mercy was one of the central themes of his life, something very near and dear to his heart, especially as a Pole.
“There is nothing that man needs more than Divine Mercy”
8. He wrote this deep piece of poetry
During the Nazi invasion when Karol had to work in a quarry in subzero conditions (and walk a 30 minute commute at the crack of dawn), he witnessed the death of a fellow worker from a dynamite explosion. He later wrote this poem:They laid him down, his back on a sheet of gravel The wife came, worn out with worry; his son returned from school… The stones on the move again: a wagon bruising the flowers. Again the electric current cuts deep into the walls.
But the man has taken with him the world’s inner structure, Where the greater the anger, the higher the explosion of love.
9. He pulled a couple James Bond moves to evade the secret police
When he was a bishop in Poland during the communist reign, the secret police were constantly keeping tabs on him and trying to study him (by the time he became pope, they had amassed 18 cartons of reports on him.)
Once, when the archbishop needed to have a secret meeting with Karol, Karol’s chauffeur pulled a little traffic weaving stunt which cut off their pursuer’s line of sight; Karol swapped cars without them knowing, and was able to meet with the archbishop in peace.
The government also bugged the bishops’ residence with listening devices, which Karol knew about and so he played off of it. He would talk extra loud when he wanted them to hear something, and would save the private conversations for his secret wilderness excursions.
Joke’s on you, commies.
10. His book royalties built churches in Yugoslavia
Pope John Paul II throughout his entire life was a giver. He made a gift of himself, and a gift of his time and talent.
Just as one example, after publishing “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” – which sold millions by the way – he used the first royalty payments to rebuild churches that had been destroyed from the conflict in Yugoslavia.
He was also known to give away the new clothes purchased for him, and keep on wearing his old ones.
11. He received the sacrament of Reconciliation from Padre Pio
In 1947, Fr. Wojtyla visited Padre Pio who heard his confession.
Pope John Paul II would canonize him 55 years later.
12. His predecessor Pope John Paul I said this…
“My name is John Paul the first. I will be here only a short time. The second is coming.”
13. He was the king of multitasking
John Paul II had an incredible work ethic, and was described by one of his secretaries as a “volcano of energy.” It wasn’t unusual for him to work 12-16 hours a day.
He had a gift of “split concentration”, and many people recounted how he could have a full-on conversation with you while he was reading – and still be present to you. He would sometimes get tired at meetings if he wasn’t working on something else at the same time. In fact, during Vatican II, he was reading and writing all sorts of books and poetry.
14. He read Marx in the Papal Conclave
In fact, so powerful was his urge to constantly be multitasking, constantly be feeding his intellect, that he even brought reading material into the Papal Conclave shortly before his own election. And of all the books to have… he was reading Marxist literature.
As he told his friend, “if you want to understand the enemy, you have to know what he has written.”
15. An audience of 300,000 wouldn’t stop their applause for 14 minutes
During his watershed trip back to Poland as Pope in June 1979, JPII celebrated Pentecost Mass in Victory Square to a crowd of 300,000 people. At one point, their wild applause wouldn’t stop for 14 minutes straight.
Take a moment to imagine that.
A people, a culture, repressed by a communism that denied their human dignity as persons. And now one of their own, a Polish boy from Wadowice comes back, as Pope, to his homeland, with a message of freedom and hope.
“Send down your Spirit! Send down your Spirit! And renew the face of the Earth! Of his land!”
16. If you put together everything he wrote, it would equal the length of 20 Bibles
He averaged more than 3,000 pages a year during his pontificate alone.
17. He was the first pope to set foot in a mosque
His love for the human person extended far outside the confines of the Catholic Church, to all religions, all races, all languages.
18. He made the Swiss Guards earn their keep
Picture this: a black-hooded, cloaked form sneaking out the back door of the Vatican.
JPII was one of those leaders, who would sneak out so as not to be noticed by his own security guards. Often these excursions were to get a little recreation in the mountains or go skiing. As busy as the man was, he also understood the need for balance and fun.
19. He enjoyed a little self-deprecating humor
On one occasion, a conversation went something like this:
JPII: “Music is extremely helpful for prayer. As St Augustine said, ‘He who sings, prays twice.’”
Friend: “Were you a good singer, Holy Father?”
JPII: “When I sang, it was more like I was praying only once.”
20. He knew all 2,000+ bishops of the world by name.
He kept a map in which he marked every diocese in the world, and knew each bishop by heart.
His memory wasn’t confined to Church leadership either. Swiss guards, seminarians, and random acquaintances he had barely met were astonished by the random details he remembered about them years later.
21. More people saw him than any other person in human history
Well, that’s what they say anyway. And with a count of a half billion people, are there any other contenders out there?
What do all of these facts have in common? I read them in Jason Evert’s new book “Saint John Paul the Great: His Five Loves”. And I’m not even halfway through yet.
Seriously, this book is amazing.
A few weeks back, a generous donor anonymously gifted copies of his book to every student and staff at John Paul the Great Catholic University, and I’ve been slowly savoring my way through it since then. This list doesn’t even scratch the surface of the gems you’ll find within.
The book is not only inspiring, it’s also extremely entertaining and accessible. It’s filled with a continual stream of anecdotes and stories that I somehow never knew. And whether John Paul II already holds a special place in your heart, or you are just discovering him, Evert draws you in with a moving and powerful journey through this saint’s incredible life and into his heart.
I highly recommend you pick it up and read it to celebrate the canonization.
Saint John Paul the Great, pray for us!
Joe Houde studied business and media at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He currently works in Admissions at John Paul the Great Catholic University.