Just a year ago an Italian television reporter went to interview an unknown Polish cardinal. So impressed was he by the Archbishop of Kracow’s description of the struggle of the “church of silence” in a hostile atheist state that he remarked: “It would be good to have a Polish Pope.” Replied Karol Cardinal Wojtyla: “It’s too soon for that.” On Sunday, however, as that same cardinal, at his inaugural mass, stepped formally into the shoes of the Fisherman as Pope John Paul II, the time had come.
Earlier in the week he had stood on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, still awk-
ward in the newly acquired white papal robes. In the piazza where over 100,000 people had waited with growing excitement, his name had boomed over the loudspeakers. The immediate reaction was stunned silence, isolated boos. Then, as the name sank in, an incredulous cry went up. “E unPolacco(It’s a Pole).” Indeed. In yet another astonishing move, the princes of the Roman Catholic Church had chosen as leader not just the first non-Italian Pope in 456 years but a “Frontier Bishop” from Eastern Europe. Not just a “transition” Pope but, at 58, the youngest Pope of this century. A Pope to last through an era of great division.
But the Pope is also Bishop of Rome,
and John Paul II knew he must reassure his diocese. That night, after his first blessing, he underlined the historic dimensions of the moment by speaking to the crowd. “Carissimi f rateUi e sorelle,” he started. At the sound of his slow but almost perfect Italian, the crowd cheered. With tears streaming down his face, the blue-eyed Slav, the Pope from “far away,” asked the Romans for their help.
As the week progressed, however, the task of reassuring the much larger diocese of the world was proving to be far more complex. The cardinals, by their “act of courage” as the Pope termed it, had thrown a spanner into the delicate political workings within Italy as well as ap-
pearing to be giving a strong new voice to the 55 million Roman Catholics in Eastern Europe, where religion blooms like a thorn in the side of atheist regimes.
As the Western countries and other religious denominations prepared to send their top officials to the inaugural mass (including Dr. Donald Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury, the first Anglican leader to attend such a ritual since the Reformation), the Communist world was noticeably silent. The official Soviet party daily Pravda reported the news in six lines. In Poland, which had repeatedly denied Pope Paul VI permission to visit, national pride eventually won out and Party Secretary Edward Gierek sent a telegram praising the “Son of Poland.” He even went so far as to speed up visa procedures so that over 500 of the Pope’s countrymen could get to Rome for the installation.
In Italy, the Communist party, unable to decide whether the appearance of an anti-Communist foreigner “across the Tiber” would be good or bad for them, at first talked about sending a congratulatory telegram and then decided, in the words of one party official, to “wait and see.”
Amid the confusion and the speculation, Pope John Paul II, tall, sturdy with a ruddy complexion, moved alone with serene determination. His first day as Pope, he outlined to the cardinals the goals of his papacy, making it clear that in taking the name of his predecessor he was committed to implementing the reforms of Vatican II. He reassured progressives by promising to democratize the power-sharing in the church. He reassured the conservatives by promising to be faithful to doctrinal purity. He told nervous governments that “We have no intention of political interference,” while at the same time telling activists he would fight for the “oppressed” of all societies. He even promised a renewed ecumenical movement. The one touchy question left unanswered was whether he would continue Pope Paul’s controversial overtures to the East.
But his first task will be to reunite the College of Cardinals. Even before they entered the Vatican apartments for the conclave, it was clear that the hardliners, who had never accepted the reforming spirit of Pope Paul and Pope John XXIII, were bent on a last-ditch effort to elect “the conservatives’ arch-conservative,” 72year-old Giuseppe Siri, Archbishop of Genoa. The other cardinals once again went in expecting to elect an Italian, with the names of Naples’ Corrado Ursi and Palermo’s Salvatore Pappalardo leading the list.
In the last conclave the powerful Archbishop of Florence, Giovanni Benelli, had been able to resolve the left-right split in the Italian ranks by proposing the com-
promise candidate, Albino Luciani. This time Benelli proposed the ailing 76-yearold Archbishop of Milan, Giovanni Colombo, another compromise to act as an “interim” Pope. But by the end of the first day, after four ballots, it was clear the Italians could not unite behind one of their own.
On the second day, the “foreign vote”— outnumbering the Italians 85 to 26—took matters into their own hands. Wojtyla’s name had come up as a good possibility even in the last conclave, but it had been dismissed because the cardinals were not yet ready to choose a non-Italian. Now, throughout the day, Wojtyla slowly gathered votes, backed by this time also by Benelli. On the final (8th) vote the Sistine Chapel was full of tension as the scrutineers read aloud the names on the ballots.
Each cardinal, holding a list with the names of all the electors, carefully checked off each vote as it was called. Suddenly it became clear that Wojtyla had crept over the required 75-vote majority. Most of the cardinals burst into applause though some Italians were clearly surprised.
Unlike Luciani, who had openly wept when it looked as if the burden of St. Peter would fall on his shoulders, Wojtyla remained calm, almost as if he had expected the vote. When he was formally asked if he would accept, he paused for a long time (“for a moment I thought he was going to refuse,” recalls St. Louis’ John Cardinal Carberry) and then, instead of the cus-
tomary “I accept,” Wojtyla spoke in Latin: “Knowing the seriousness of these times, and aware of the responsibility of this election, putting my trust in God, I accept.” When asked what name he wished to be called, Wojtyla again reflected before answering: “Because of my reverence and love and devotion to John Paul I and to Paul VI who has been my inspiration and my strength, I will take the name John Paul II.”
That the election result was not universally welcomed was made clear by a scowling Siri as he left the conclave. Asked if the choice was a surprise he snapped: “I can’t say.” Asked what he thought of the Pope’s first speech given a few minutes earlier, he said merely: “I don’t remember it now.” For Italians in general, however, the thought of a foreigner at the helm soon revealed some positive possibilities. There were hopes that a less “parochial” Pope would remove the overbearing interference of the church in Italian politics. (It recently campaigned strongly against divorce and abortion laws.) The church has also been the biggest supporter of the ruling Christian Democrats, propping them up against the growing strength of the Communist party. Cheered commentator Eugenio Scalfari in the leftist daily La Repubblica: “The Catholic party finally has an obligation to act like an adult and speak for itself.”
Politics aside, however, there was no question that the new Pope met all the qualities that the 111 cardinals had gone seeking. He is pastoral, with 28 years experience under an oppressive regime; intellectual, having published numerous books and articles; a linguist, who speaks English, French, Italian, German, as well as Polish; and a good administrator, having been a member of three congregations—or departments—in the Vatican bureaucracy. The son of an army official whose mother died when he was nine, he grew up in the small southern Polish farming town of Wadowice. During the war, he studied in secret by night, worked in a chemical factory by day. After the war he went to Rome’s Pontifical Institute for a doctorate in philosophy but returned to do parish work, becoming Archbishop of Kracow in 1964 and finally cardinal at the unusually young age of 47, 11 years ago.
While relatively unknown to the public at large, he has travelled so widely (to the U.S. and Canada twice, Australia, New Zealand, and Germany last month), that he is one of the best-known cardinals in church circles. Almost every cardinal and not a few lay people have stories to tell about “the time Wojtyla came to visit.” Rudolph Kogler, an Ontario economist and a friend since childhood, recalls that Wojtyla, on one trip to Canada, went missing for an hour at a Polish hall and when finally tracked down, was entertaining a group of children. Canadian Sen-
ator Stanley Haidasz remembers Wojtyla’s eloquent preaching and deep concern for religious freedom in his native country.
So as hundreds of reporters descended on the quiet town of Wadowice, canvassing for anecdotes about the new spiritual leader of over 700 million people—they even went so far as to inspect his austere small bedroom—John Paul emerged as a well-rounded man. A poet, amateur actor, a good athlete who loves to ski, a man with an almost palpable “common touch” about him, the Polish Pope, far from arriving on the scene too soon, seemed long overdue. ?'
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