Pope John Paul II and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa Meet in Poland in 1981.
Two 20th Century popes were Canonized by the Vatican in a ceremony this Sunday that was presided over Pope Francis and had Pope Emeritus Benedict in attendance. Born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli in northern Italy in 1881, Pope John XXIII served as pontiff from 1958 until his death in 1963 and was a former cardinal of Venice, reportedly saving thousands of Jews from the nazis and their allies during WWII by issuing baptismal certificates.
One of Pope John XXIII's lasting legacies as pontiff was the opening up of Mass in languages besides Latin. He also strived for more openness between the faithful and the Vatican and establishing better relations with the Jewish community and other Christian denominations.
Pope John Paul II served as the Catholic Church's patriarch much more recently [for most of my life, basically- NANESB!] and was also canonized this weekend. Born Karol Józef Wojtyła in the southern Polish town of Wadowice in 1920, the future papal candidate was attending college in Krakow when the Germans invaded and occupied Poland in 1939. While attending an underground seminary in Krakow, Karol was struck and injured by a German truck, but by early 1945 he and other students moved back in to the remains of their seminary. By 1958, Wojtyła was selected to be the auxiliary Bishop of Krakow.
Within 20 years, Karol Józef Wojtyła would be elected by a papal conclave to become Pope John Paul II. Well versed in many languages, he would become the most well-travelled Pope in the church's history, visiting more than 120 nations and becoming the first pope to visit the White House in 1979.
Just months after being named Pope, John Paul II returned to his native Poland. Officials in Poland's communist controlled government were reportedly anticipating that the Papal visit might stoke an uprising and were preparing to blame him for any insurrection that would be put down. However, Pope John Paul II's visit instead stoked the fires of the burgeoning pro-democracy Solidarity movement- which engaged in a campaign of civil disobedience and anti-government protests that eventually forced Poland's communist government into negotiations with Solidarity.
However, Poland's Soviet benefactors (rightly) feared a ripple effect throughout eastern Europe and in 1981, while on his way to St Peter's Square Pope John Paul II was shot four times with a 9mm handgun fired by a Turkish convict thought to be working on behalf of Bulgaria's intelligence agency and the Kremlin [documents released from East Germany's Stasi and Poland's SB since the end of the Cold War seem to confirm the Kremlin sanctioning the attempt on the Pope's life- NANESB!].
This would not be the last time John Paul II was in the crosshairs of a murderous ideology- in January 1995, the Pope was scheduled to address a huge crowd in the Philippines for World Youth Day celebrations. Less than a week before the pontiff's scheduled arrival, firefighters in Manila were called to an apartment fire after neighbors reported smoke and a suspicious odor. Although the two middle-eastern occupants of the apartment said they had extinguished the fire, a suspicious policewoman obtained a search warrant and bomb-making components were discovered inside along with a laptop, crucifixes, rosaries and the Pope's schedule for the upcoming World Youth Day events. Local police in Manila had stumbled upon a plot to assassinate Pope John Paul II using a suicide bomber dressed as a priest- but even more alarming was that the Pope's assassination would be a distraction from an even more ambitious plot to simultaneously target nearly a dozen trans-Pacific commercial flights. About a month earlier, then-Al Qaeda bomb-maker Ramsi Yousef had managed to successfully smuggle a smaller bomb on board a Philippine Airlines flight from Manila to Japan. Yousef got off the plane when it make a scheduled stop in Cebu and the bomb detonated while the plane was flying over Okinawa. Although a Japanese businessman was killed by the blast, the pilots were able to successfully land the damaged aircraft at Naha airport in Okinawa.
Despite the complex terror plot that was supposed to be initiated with his assassination, Pope John Paul II's appearance at Youth Day not only went off without incident, but the closing mass at Luneta Park in the Manila drew 5 million- the largest Papal gathering in the Church's history. This also marked the last time John Paul II visited the Philippines; although he was scheduled to travel there in 2003, his deteriorating health prevented him from making the trip.
In 2000, John Paul II became the first Pope to visit the nation of Israel during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and in 2001 he met with Archbishop Christodoulos, the then-head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Athens. The two recited the Lord's Prayer on a spot where Saint Paul preached to Athens' early Christians, breaking an Orthodox taboo against praying with Catholics that had been in place since the Great Schism.
John Paul II's last trip out of Italy was to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Loudres in France in 2004. In April 2005, Pope John Paul II passed away at the age of 84 from heart failure and circulatory collapse