On Oct. 6, 1995, Pope John Paul II touched down onto Aqueduct Race Track via helicopter. With a multicolored cross above him to symbolize the diversity of Queens, he delivered a Mass to a crowd of 75,000. His trip to the United States was one among the journeys he made to 129 countries during his papacy, an attribute that helped him be known as “The People’s Pope.”
When Pope John Paul II began his 26-year papacy, cardinals were ready to kneel before him and kiss his ring as tradition required. Instead, the pope told them to stand so he could hug them. At 58, Cardinal Karol Josef Wojtyla of Poland became the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. Soon after he assumed the role, he began his travels, using his ability to speak eight languages to draw out millions wherever he went.
His first message as pope was of peace: “To reach peace, teach peace,” a sentiment he practiced since childhood. When his friends would play soccer, Catholics versus Jews, he would often volunteer to play on the Jewish side if they were short players. Growing up, Wojtyla was active in many sports and arts activities, even spending time as a playwright. But, a devout Catholic, he was always set on the priesthood, citing the influence of his father, who had to raise him by himself after the deaths of his older brother and mother. “Day after day I was able to observe the austere way in which he lived … his example was in a way my first seminary, a kind of domestic seminary.”
While he was studying literature and philosophy at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, Nazi occupation closed the school, and Wojtyla had to work in a factory to protect himself from deportation to a labor camp. Despite the risk, he also participated in an underground theater at a time when it was outlawed for Polish citizens.
His opposition to stifling political movements continued into his papacy. In 1979 he visited Poland and stressed religious freedom before his crowd. His criticism of communism fuelled the formation of the Solidarity movement, encouraging Poles to stand up against their government. In 1998, he gave Mass in Cuba. His trip was said to influence Fidel Castro’s decision to lift a ban on Christmas festivities.
Always a proponent of human rights, the pope spent his papacy attempting to alleviate tension between religions and cultures. In 2000, he asked forgiveness for the church’s errors including those during the Inquisition, and the persecution of Jews and heretics. Despite his rock-star status, he did receive criticism on issues ranging from his handling of the sex abuse scandals to his conservative stance against abortion, stem cell research and euthanasia.
Critics aside, by the time of his death in 2005, supporters called to “make him a saint now” at his funeral. He bypassed the usual five-year waiting period and received the required two- miracle approval after two women were said to have been healed because of him. He is slated to be declared a saint in April 2014.