Remembering Emilia: The Mother of John Paul II

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Pope St. John Paul II’s 100th birthday is May 18, 2020. There are a lot of articles circulating discussing his life and legacy but few tend to mention the most important woman in Karol Wojtyla’s life: his mother, Emilia. One could argue that the most important woman to Pope John Paul II was the Blessed Mother, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. However, without the love and formation of his earthly mother, the man who became one of the most beloved popes in history would not have been disposed toward the love he developed for Mary, his heavenly mother. In fact it was the death of his beloved mother, Emilia, that spurred young Karol, Jr. to develop his Marian devotion.

Who was Emilia Wojtyla?

Born Emilia née Kaczorowska on March 26, 1884, she attended a Catholic school as a child run by the Sisters of Divine Love. Working as a school teacher, she was almost 22 years old when she married Karol Wojtyla, Sr. on February 10, 1906 in Kracow, Poland. The couple were married for just shy of 23 years. Emilia was known to be deeply religious, having a strong faith that she passed on to her children and according to the future pope, lived her life as a wife and mother as the “soul of the home.”

Emilia suffered with frail health, and was ill and weak for much of young Karol Wojtyla’s childhood. Yet, he often recalled how she instructed him in the faith and was responsible for his early formation. She eventually succumbed to heart and kidney failure on April 13, 1929 at the age of 45.

Mother of three

Emilia and Karol Wojtyla with their son Edmund.

Emilia’s most well known child is obviously Karol, Jr, who later became Pope John Paul II, but she was also the mother of 3 children: two sons and a daughter. Her oldest son, Edmund, was born in 1906, became a doctor, and died December 4, 1932 from Scarlet Fever after treating a patient with the disease. Emilia’s daughter, Olga, was born on July 7, 1916 and did not live long after birth. Parish records for the Wojtyla family state that little Olga died on the same day she was born. Karol Wojtyla, Jr was the youngest of the family, born on May 18, 1920.

Servant of God

Emilia and young Edmund

Emilia Wojtyla was no stranger to suffering, loss, or sacrifice. Her heroic faith and dedication to living her vocation have led to the cause for her canonization, along with her husband’s, to be opened in Poland. She and her husband Karol, Sr. are now recognized as Servants of God. On May 7, 2020, the Polish Bishop’s Conference officially opened the process. Spokesman for the Conference, Fr. Paweł Rytel-Andrianik, said:

“The processes of beatification of Karol and Emilia Wojtyła . . . testify above all to the appreciation of the family and its great role in shaping the holy and great man—the Polish Pope. The Wojtyłas were able to create such an atmosphere at home and form children in such a way that they became outstanding people. Therefore, there is great joy of starting the beatification processes and great gratitude to God for the life of Emilia and Karol Wojtyła and for the fact that we will be able to get to know them more and more. They will become a model and example for many families who want to be holy.”

Over this your white grave

Young Karol, Jr. was often described as sullen and withdrawn after his mother’s death. Not even 10 years old, he had to face the reality of his beloved mother’s passing and grapple with what it meant to grow up without her. As he aged he developed a deep love for poetry, authoring a myriad of poems including some that were originally published using his pen name of 16 years, Andrzej Jawien.

One of his most poignant poems was written in memory of his mother and titled, “Over This Your White Grave.” One can see, even in the translation, the heart of a sad little boy whose love for his mother did not diminish over time, only gained depth and understanding:

Over this, your white grave

the flowers of life in white—

so many years without you—

how many have passed out of sight?

Over this your white grave

covered for years, there is a stir

in the air, something uplifting

and, like death, beyond comprehension.

Over this your white grave

oh, mother, can such loving cease?

for all his filial adoration

a prayer:

Give her eternal peace—

Birthday of a saint

Emilia Wojtyla with young Karol

As the celebration of John Paul II’s birthday comes and goes, perhaps it would be fitting to remember the woman who gave him life and nurtured him in those early years. Knowing the love John Paul II had for his mother, perhaps there is no more fitting way to mark the 100th anniversary of his life, knowing that they are once again united in love in the Beatific Vision that awaits us all.

Servant of God Emilia Wojtyla, pray for us!

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