Karol Wojtyla was born in 1920, the youngest of three children in Wadowice, Poland. Karol was a brilliant student with a natural facility for languages and a love for music and theater. Eventually he would learn at least 12 different languages, an asset he would use again and again in the world travels that marked his papacy.
Due to the German occupation of Poland during World War II, Wojtyla had to attend seminary classes held in secret at the Archbishop's residence in Krakow. With his personal history of friendships with Jews, he would become the first pope to pray at a synagogue and at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
At just 58, Cardinal Wojtyla was elected pope in October 1978, a few months after the sudden death of Pope John Paul I. The second longest serving papacy in Church history, Pope John Paul II's tenure sparkles with significant achievements including: improved relations with Jews, Muslims and Orthodox Christians; a revised and updated Catechism of the Catholic Church; fourteen papal encyclicals, including the On Labor, Faith and Reason and the Gospel of Life; unwavering support for the Church teaching on abortion and euthanasia; a renewed effort for evangelization; and staunch advocacy for peace. He was also known for his deep devotion to the Blessed Mother.
Angelo Roncalli was born in 1881, in Sotto Il Monte, Italy. His parents were tenant farmers. An excellent student who entered the seminary at 12 years old, at eighteen, he wrote: "Everything I possess, my being, life, understanding, will and memory - all were given to me by God, so I belong to him."
At the age of 71, he was elevated to the rank of cardinal. In 1958 he attended the conclave of cardinals to elect a new pope after the death of Pope Pius XII. Never expecting to become pope, as the story is told, he had a return train ticket back to Venice in his pocket, which, of course, he would never use.
Pope John XXIII's major accomplishments included improving ecumenical relations, reforming and revising the liturgy fostering a greater role for the laity in Church governance, and, his landmark achievement, the convening of Vatican II. He will be remembered also for his humility, warmth and gentle sense of humor. "Anybody can become pope," he once said, "the proof of this is I have become one." Pope John issued eight encyclicals. Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) is considered his most important contribution to Church teaching.