On October 16, 1978, the College of Cardinals in the Vatican elected Karol Wojtyła to lead the world’s Roman Catholics, the first non-Italian pope since the 16th century, and the first Pole. It was to be a 27-year pontificate.
He addressed the crowd from the balcony saying: “They have called him from a country far away.”
The cardinals had reached behind the Iron Curtain.
He was born in 1920 in Wadowice, Poland. His mother died when he was eight. He was ordained on All Saints’ Day, 1946. Two decades later he was a cardinal, and by age 58 Supreme Pontiff.
Pope John Paul II hit the ground travelling, so to speak. He would visit 127 countries, mixing comfortably with people of all walks of life.
Several times he went to Poland. He supported the Solidarity trade union movement that led opposition to Communist rule, which brought it to an end.
Vatican analyst Marco Politi said: “John Paul II always said that he was not Superman who led Communism fall. He said: ‘The tree was rotten. I just shook the tree.’”
Then a Turkish mercenary shot him at close range as he was driven through St Peter’s square, on May 13, 1981. He forgave Mehmet Ali Ağca, who served almost 20 years in prison for the crime in Italy before a presidential pardon. There were also other assassination attempts or plots.
John Paul preached his vision far and wide. Many of his hosts had never received a modern pope, notably Egypt, Cuba and Britain. He was conservative, especially on reproduction and sexuality. But he officially apologised for many wrongs done at the hand of the Church — over slavery and war, to the Jews, to women, and for the sexual abuse of children, though some who suffered criticised. He persevered.
His health ultimately failing, he died on 2 April, 2005.
His funeral broke attendance records, including the most heads of state.
He was buried in St. Peter’s Basilica.