In 1942, Krakow was occupied by Nazi forces, who had arrived in the city in 1939. They had exported Jewish people, political dissidents, and academics. They had shuttered the universities. They ruled by martial law. They had conscripted all young men into manual labor, to support the Nazi conquest of Europe.
At the age of 18, Karol Wojtyła had moved with his father to Krakow in 1938. They lived in a basement apartment, and Wojtyła studied at the Jagellonian University. In 1940, he began working in a quarry, and later in a chemical factory. In separate automobile accidents, he fractured his skull and hurt his spine, shoulders, and hips. In 1941, Karol’s father died. At 21, his parents were dead, his body in ill health, and his work was exhausting.
Amidst those circumstances, Karol Wojtyła heard a call. He remembered years later that he “became convinced that Christ was saying to me what he had said to thousands before me: ‘Come, follow me!’ There was a clear sense that what I heard in my heart was no human voice, nor was it just an idea of my own. Christ was calling me to serve him as a priest.”
Wojtyła began seminary studies in 1942, while the Nazis remained in the city. The seminary had been outlawed: he and his fellow students studied at night, and worked during the day. In 1944, when the Nazis arrested every young man living in Krakow, the seminarians went into hiding: living and studying in the home of Krakow’s Archbishop, Adam Sapieha. When Soviet forces took over the city, Wojtyła and other seminarians, who demonstrated for democracy and human rights, were spied upon by Polish and Russian secret police.
Wojtyła was ordained on November 1, 1946. He had already carried more crosses than many people carry in a lifetime. But he said that nothing meant more to him, or gave him greater joy, “than to celebrate Mass each day, and to serve God’s people in the Church.”
Wojtyła received what he called the “gift and mystery of the priesthood.” He said that every priest should be humbled to represent Christ—because through the priesthood, the world can “catch a glimpse of the Lord.”
Truly, the priestly vocation of Karol Wojtyła, who would become Pope St. John Paul II, was heroic, generous, and holy. Indeed, every priest is called to a heroic, generous, and holy life of ministry, and service. Priesthood is a gift and mystery—a source of profound grace and wonder—for us all.
The priests of the Middle East, who face martyrdom, are called to share the “gift and mystery” of Jesus Christ. So are the priests among the poor of the third world. So are the priests of the military, and those in monasteries and abbeys, and those priests who give their lives to God in the mission fields of schoolrooms, or nursing homes, or jails, or parishes.
Every priest is called to the adventure—the “gift and mystery”—of a life configured to Christ: to his mercy, to his truth, to his love. The priesthood is an extraordinary gift for each man on whom it is conferred, an extraordinary gift for the entire Church. Through the priesthood comes the love, grace, and truth of God in the sacramental mystery of the Eucharist, and the healing mercy of confession.
Men hear the call of priesthood—as Wojtyła did—when they have been taught to pray: to speak to the Lord, and to hear his voice. This is why the family, the domestic Church, is where the seeds of vocations are so often planted. And the seeds of vocations are planted in Catholic schools and parishes, where young people learn to know and hear the voice of God. Families, schools, parishes, and communities have the responsibility and privilege of helping all young people to realize the call the Lord has given them.
It is privilege to support vocations in that way. It is also a privilege to support young men as they study for priesthood, as they prepare for lives offered in love to Christ’s Church. It is a privilege to help young men take the steps of discernment that lead to lives of heroic sacrifice and generous witness. This month, the Diocese of Lincoln is beginning the 2016 Bishop’s Appeal for Vocations. In gratitude to the priests who have revealed to me the love of God, I am proud to contribute to this appeal. I pray that you will do the same.
In gratitude to men like Karol Wojtyła—Pope St. John Paul II—and to the pastors, and teachers, and confessors who have changed your lives, I pray that you will support the young men of the Diocese of Lincoln who have heard the Lord’s call, and who are preparing for the “gift and mystery” of sacred priesthood.