John Paul II Becomes Pope Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When Karol Józef Wojtyła, archbishop of Kraków, Poland, was elected pope on October 16, 1978, after the short pontificate of John Paul I, he became the first non-Italian to hold that office in 455 years. John Paul II’s papacy transformed the Roman Catholic Church and played a major role in the downfall of communism in Europe.

Summary of Event

On October 14, 1978, following the short pontificate of Pope John Paul I—who died after an extended period of poor health—the College of Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church met to select his successor. Although the proceedings of the cardinals’ conclave are secret, later reports indicated that Cardinal Karol Józef Wojtyła of Poland emerged as a compromise candidate after the early voting deadlocked between two Italian candidates. The support of the influential Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Franz Koenig, was a critical factor in bringing other cardinals to support Cardinal Wojtyła’s candidacy. He was also strongly supported by African cardinals, who knew him as a strong evangelizer. Cardinal Wojtyła was elected pope on the eighth ballot on October 16, 1978. [kw]John Paul II Becomes Pope (Oct. 16, 1978) [kw]Pope, John Paul II Becomes (Oct. 16, 1978) Roman Catholic Church;popes [g]Europe;Oct. 16, 1978: John Paul II Becomes Pope[03380] [g]Vatican City;Oct. 16, 1978: John Paul II Becomes Pope[03380] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Oct. 16, 1978: John Paul II Becomes Pope[03380] John Paul II

The new pope’s background had been shaped under the Nazi and Soviet tyranny that had gripped his native Poland during World War II and in the years that followed. He had grown up in a strongly religious and patriotic atmosphere, and as a young man he had close contacts with Polish Jews in his hometown of Wadowice. During the German occupation of Poland, the deaths of so many of his friends—both Jewish and Christian—had a profound impact on the young Wojtyła. He participated in underground theatrical and literary groups, performing works banned by the Nazi occupiers. It was during this period that he secretly entered the seminary and began training for the priesthood.

Newly elected Pope John Paul II.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Ordained at the end of the war, the young priest quickly made a name for himself as a caring and outgoing pastor and as a serious philosopher and theologian. He earned two doctoral degrees in theology and taught at the Communist bloc’s only independent university in Poland, the Catholic University of Lublin. In 1958, he became an auxiliary bishop, and in 1963 he was appointed archbishop of Kraków. During the 1960’s, he began to make his reputation as a serious thinker with his deep participation in the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council. He worked closely with Pope Paul VI, Paul VI assisting in the preparation of critical encyclicals such as Humane Vitae. He was selected to preach to Pope Paul VI and his staff at a special retreat. During this period, the Polish prelate came quietly to the notice of many in the Catholic world.

The election of a non-Italian pope created a sensation among the Roman people and among the Catholic faithful worldwide. In the days immediately following his election, the new pope, who took the name John Paul II, showed that he would be different from his predecessor—more open and accessible, but without sacrificing the seriousness and personal holiness to which each pontiff is called. His background as a pastor and diocesan bishop was immediately obvious in his ability to reach out to ordinary men and women. This openness surprised the Vatican bureaucracy, which had been in the habit of controlling the public profile of the pope. For example, during the Christmas holidays, the new pope left the Vatican to bless a manager scene erected by Roman street sweepers. While he was there, the daughter of one of the street sweepers asked him if he would perform her wedding ceremony, and, to everyone’s surprise, the pope agreed.

In the new pope’s native Poland Poland;Pope John Paul II and in Polish immigrant communities around the world, the joy over his election could not be contained. As the news reached Poland, church bells began to ring out. The ancient Zygmunt bell at Wawel Cathedral in Kraków, rung only in moments of supreme gravity, tolled the news, and crowds of cheering and crying Poles filled the churches. The reaction of Communist leaders in the Soviet bloc was far less joyful. While ordinary Poles danced in the streets, at Communist Party headquarters in Warsaw and in Moscow there was panic and confusion. The KGB station chief in Warsaw was recalled to Moscow, where the head of the KGB demanded to know how the Warsaw chief could have allowed a citizen of a socialist country to be elected pope.

Polish state television waited several hours for appropriate high-level clarification from Soviet authorities before broadcasting the news (although by then most Poles knew). In public, the official reaction was subdued, but behind the scenes no one was sure what it all meant. Soviet analysts assumed that Wojtyła’s election was a U.S.-German plot to undermine socialist unity. Some believed that the new pope would be open to “dialogue” with the Communist Party. Some thought that his election would relieve the Communist authorities in Poland of a thorn in their side. John Paul II’s close affinity for the Ukrainian Catholic Church and for Catholics in Lithuania was alarming to Moscow. In Warsaw, the Communist Party sent secret instructions to schools that stated: “The Pope is our enemy. . . . Due to his uncommon skills and great sense of humor he is dangerous. . . . Because of the activation of the Church in Poland our activities designed to atheize the youth must . . . intensively develop.”


The election of a Polish pope intensified a major effort on the part of Communist security forces to infiltrate and neutralize the Roman Catholic Church. This included several plots to assassinate the new pope. (Most investigators and scholars now believe that the KGB was ultimately behind the 1981 assassination attempt that nearly ended John Paul II’s life.) John Paul I Koenig, Franz Roman Catholic Church;popes

The most critical early event of the new pontificate was John Paul II’s visit to Poland in June, 1979, made after protracted negotiations with Polish authorities. On the first day of the visit, approximately one million people packed the streets and squares in the heart of Warsaw to see the pope. At that moment, the Communist authorities lost control of the public square, an essential tool of a totalitarian regime. Workers were denied time off to see the pope, but many simply put down their tools and walked off their jobs. The crowds remained peaceful and calm, but it was now the turn of the people to feel powerful as the authorities hid in their houses and offices. Over the course of the nine-day visit, some thirteen million Poles saw John Paul II in person, approximately one-third of the entire Polish population. Nearly all of the rest followed the events of the visit on television. Thousands of Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian Catholics also made it to Poland to see the pope.

As he left Poland, John Paul II told his countrymen and -women never to lose hope or give in to despair. From then on, growing numbers of Poles began to behave as if the totalitarian regime no longer mattered. The new pope’s slogan had always been “Be not afraid,” and the election of a Polish pope provided powerful inspiration to dissident workers and intellectuals in Poland and across the Soviet bloc. Soon small, isolated groups of dissidents would swell in size as people lost their fear of the regimes that had ruled them for so long. By the end of the 1980’s, the Communist bloc was crumbling.

John Paul II’s inspiration was not confined to Europe, however; he soon became the most traveled pope in history, visiting every inhabited continent. He opened dialogues with representatives of all the world’s major religions. He also reformed the bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church and reasserted its teaching authority, much to the dismay of many of his opponents. His pontificate would last twenty-seven years, one of the longest in history, and soon after its end, scholars began to call John Paul II the most significant Roman Catholic pontiff since the Renaissance. Roman Catholic Church;popes

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chodakiewicz, Marek Jan. “The Pope’s Secret File.” American Spectator, March, 2006. Details efforts on the part of the Communist regime in Poland to undermine the Roman Catholic Church.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kloczowski, Jerzy. A History of Polish Christianity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Provides a concise overview of the history of the Catholic Church in Poland. Includes maps, glossary, bibliographic essay, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weigel, George. Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II. New York: HarperCollins, 1999. Comprehensive biography written with the pope’s assistance. Somewhat biased in favor of its subject, but informative. Includes bibliography and index.

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Categories: History