The Heroic Papacy
John Paul II dramatically revitalized the world's oldest institutional office and always continued to surprise.
He was the Pope neither the Church nor the world expected. The surprises that characterized his twenty-six year pontificate began on the very night of John Paul II's election.
On October 16, 1978, the Catholic Church was in a state of spiritual shock. The fifteen-year papacy of Paul VI, whom many veteran churchmen considered the perfectly prepared pope, had concluded in division and exhaustion. The bright promise of the Second Vatican Council was a fading memory. Paul's successor, John Paul I, seemed on the verge of revitalizing the papacy when he died after a mere thirty-three days in office. To whom would the college of cardinals turn now?
Few expected that they would turn to Karol Wojtyla, the 58-year-old archbishop of Kraków. But after the first day's balloting had revealed a deadlock between the two leading Italian candidates, the cardinals made the historic decision to look beyond Italy for a pope, and Wojtyla was quickly chosen. His appearance on the loggia of St. Peter's Basilica that night was the first surprise; many in the vast crowd had never heard of "Wojtyla," thinking the name Asian or African. But the surprises continued as John Paul II broke centuries of precedent and began his pontificate with an impromptu address in Italian, reassuring the worried Romans that, from this moment on, he, too, was a Roman. When he asked them to correct any mistakes he might make in "our Italian language," they cheered wildly.
Six days later, at his papal inauguration, the surprises continued. In his homily, John Paul II challenged the Church to regain its evangelical fervor and its nerve, particularly in defending the fundamental human right of religious freedom throughout the world. After the three-hour ceremony ended, he refused to retreat into the Vatican basilica but walked toward the vast throng in the Square, waving his papal crozier as if it were a great sword of the spirit. When a small boy burst through the security cordon to present him with flowers, fussy local clergy tried to shoo him away; John Paul II swept him up in an embrace. The crowds refused to leave until John Paul told them, "It's time for everyone to eat lunch, even the Pope!"