On May 18, 1920, a third child and second son was born to a retired Polish army officer, Captain Karol Wojtyła, and his wife, Emilia, in Wadowice, a provincial town some fifty kilometers west of Kraków. At his baptism on June 20, the child was named for his father. To what would have been the stunned surprise of those present that day, the child grew up to be the emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century—as Henry Kissinger put it a few minutes after the death of Pope John Paul II on April 2, 2005. But perhaps not the stunned surprise of everyone: When the little boy’s mother pushed him in a pram through the streets of Wadowice, she would sometimes say to her neighbors, “My Lolek will be a great man someday.”
In characterizing John Paul’s greatness, Kissinger likely had in mind the Polish pope’s pivotal role in the collapse of European communism. That was no mean accomplishment. Yet John Paul’s enduring greatness may owe still more to his analysis of the human condition in late modernity and postmodernity. His insights arose from his faith, which gave him a remarkable capacity to see the world through a biblical lens; from his intellectual life, through which he understood what he had seen; and from his pastoral experience, which helped him grasp the effects of what he saw and heard in people’s lives. The salience of his analysis has increased over time. In the third decade of the twenty-first century, John Paul’s reading of the signs of the times remains a template for understanding our civilization’s distempers and rebuilding its moral-cultural foundations.