Since his historic investiture as Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla has belonged to the world. But until then he was claimed only by his native Polish village of Wadowice, and by Krakow, where he studied and became cardinal. PEOPLE correspondent Rudi Chelminski went to Poland to learn about this remarkable man from those who knew him well in his youth and manhood.
Hey, auntie, they’ve made Lolek the Pope!” For Boguslaw Banas, 56, shouting the news, the announcement from Rome came like a thunderclap. Looking across the street from the second-floor apartment in Wadowice where he has lived all his life, he could see the boyhood home of his lifelong friend—the man who sits on the throne of Saint Peter. Banas remembers playing with the new Pope as a child and gestures proudly to the chair where the great man sat in 1958 on a visit after his elevation to bishop. “When the other people were around I naturally referred to him as Your Excellency,” Banas confides, “but when we were alone I just called him Lolek, as I did as a boy.”
A child of his parents’ middle age, Karol Wojtyla was surrounded by older people from the beginning and soon acquired a precocious maturity. “I can’t remember his ever getting a grade below ‘very good,’ ” recalls Dr. Wlodzimierz Piotrowski, a childhood classmate. “He surpassed us all, but he never tried to impose his will upon us.” Romping through fields, swimming in the River Scawa, playing handball and Ping-Pong and soccer, Lolek and his friends were normal boys—but children of a lost generation. “It was another style before the war,” remembers Banas. “Fathers used their belts in those days. They didn’t have to talk—just a look was enough. Lolek’s father was a strict disciplinarian. We all used to walk like circus ponies.”
But in 1929, when he was only 9 years old, Lolek’s world shattered about him. First his mother died. Then his adored older brother, Edmund, a doctor, contracted a fatal case of scarlet fever from a patient. The deaths brought father and son closer together. They made an odd and affecting couple, the little boy and the old man, a retired army officer. After school young Karol would come home, and the two would cross the street for lunch at the little basement canteen run by Banas’ mother. The boy was allowed to play for a while, then it was home for more studies, a dinner prepared by his father and, at nightfall, a ritual stroll with Papa before turning in.
After graduating at the top of his high school class at 18, Karol moved with his father to Krakow, where they lived on the old man’s military pension. The future Pope was studying philosophy at the venerable Jagellonian University when the Nazis invaded. The pension was rescinded, and Karol took a job in a quarry. Returning home one evening in 1941, he found his father dead on his bed. The young man’s penchant for reflection became a visceral need for prayer, and he struggled to choose between the church and the stage. Intriguingly, he had become an enthusiastic amateur actor during the war. “There are plenty of priests around,” a friend in the theater once counseled him, “but there aren’t many actors like you.” Then, in 1944, Warsaw rebelled against its German invaders. The Nazis retaliated with mass executions and deportations to forced-labor camps. On a day known in Krakow as “Black Sunday,” they began rounding up all the people in Wojtyla’s neighborhood. “Karol was alone in his apartment, waiting for it to happen to him,” recalls a friend. “He knelt down and prayed and—it was a strange thing—the Germans never came. They left him alone.” Karol spent the rest of the war hidden in the palace of the Archbishop of Krakow.
Years later, as archbishop himself and then cardinal, Wojtyla earned a reputation for long hours and hard work. “His door was always open,” recalls Father Adam Bonietski. “He knew how to listen, and he never seemed to be in a hurry. Of course, that sometimes meant that he was two or three hours late for appointments. Finally they gave him a secretary. Poor man! He told me his job consisted mostly of telling the cardinal jokes to take his mind off his work.”
Despite his warmth and accessibility, Wojtyla remained a solitary, introspective figure—one who would shun the cable cars on skiing trips to Poland’s Tatra Mountains and shoulder his skis for a thoughtful hike to the top. “He would meditate on the Stations of the Cross on the way up,” says Bonietski, “and then permit himself a little bit of joy on the way down.” At other times he would have his disapproving chauffeur leave him in the mountains where a trail joined the highway, with instructions to meet him again several miles—and many hours—later. Today his friends in Poland celebrate their friend’s rise to the papacy, but already mourn his keenly felt absence. “God let this wonderful thing happen,” says Father Janusz Bielanski, a former student, “and we all rejoice. It is a pity in a way, though, because there won’t ever be another one like him.”