edit by Francesco Buranelli
(Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church)

After the white smoke, at 6 pm on 16 October 1978, the faithful gathered in St Peter's Square were waiting for the window of the Loggia of the Blessings in St Peter's to open. The elderly Cardinal Pericle Felici appeared, framed by television cameras all over the world, and pronounced the ritual words: “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum, habemus papam: Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum Carolum Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Wojtyla, qui sibi nomen imposti Ioannem Paulum II.”

The 264th pope of Rome was a Pole!

The first non-Italian pope in four and a half centuries: ever since 1523, the year in which the Dutch pope, Hadrian VI, died (Adriaan Florenszoon Boeyens, 1522-1523). The conclave had been short: two days in all, and only six ballots.
On 14 October, the 111 cardinals who voted had been summoned to another conclave only six weeks after the previous one, because of the untimely death of Pope John Paul I, while intoning Veni Creator Spiritus, an ancient hymn dating from over a thousand years ago, which invokes the intercession of the Holy Spirit. According to a centuries-old ritual the doors of the Sistine Chapel were sealed after the Master of Liturgical Celebrations had announced “Extra omnes!” (Everyone out!).

The press, as usual, had made predictions about who would be the future pope: the favourites were Cardinal Giuseppe Siri of Genoa and Cardinal Giovanni Benelli of Florence, who represented respectively, the conservative wing and the progressive wing of the College of Cardinals. The opposition of the two camps seemed to regard the future of the Church, but in actual fact it particularly reflected the difficult political and social situation in Italy.
Very quickly, however, the cardinals' choice focused on the future of the universal Church, and they took up a global stance that went well beyond the confines of the Italian question.
It was the Cardinal of Vienna, König, who, seeing the deadlock in the voting, put forward the candidature of the young cardinal of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła, who won an overwhelming majority after only two ballots. On Monday morning Wojtyła had only received 11 votes, in the afternoon he reached a total of 47 and then in the second ballot of the afternoon he won by 99 votes out of 111.
He accepted his election with these words: "With obedience in faith to Christ, my Lord, and with trust in the Mother of Christ and of the Church, in spite of great difficulties I accept."

As a tribute to his predecessor, who was greatly loved by Italian Catholics, he took the name of John Paul II. Right from his very first appearance on the balcony of the Loggia of the Blessings, John Paul II broke with tradition, he did not simply bless the crowd, but made a brief, impromptu speech: "And now the most eminent cardinals have called a new bishop of Rome, they called him from a far away country … far, but always near in the communion of faith and the Christian tradition. I was afraid in receiving this nomination, but I did it in the spirit of obedience to Our Lord Jesus Christ and with total trust in his Mother, the Most Holy Madonna." Then he added smiling: "I don't know if I can express myself well in your … in our Italian language, But if I make a mistake you will correct me."  

The little slip he made immediately endeared him to the people, and from that historic day on their love never waned in all the twenty-seven years of his papacy.

From the outset, the new pope brought a breath of fresh air into the Church. He was young and vigorous, had a good presence and a deep voice, held the pastoral staff like a standard and urged everyone not to be afraid. He looked energetic and had the air of a sportsman. The brand new swimming pool built at Castel Gandolfo, his frequent walks in the mountains (for many years nearly every Tuesday he "escaped" with his trusty secretary through the Porta di Sant'Anna to spend a few hours in the nearby Apennines), his skiing with the President of the Italian Republic, Sandro Pertini, (a socialist, partisan and non-believer, with whom he had a very good relationship) create a completely new image for a pope, who was nicknamed "God's athlete".

At that time there was a widespread feeling that the Church was going through a big crisis, which was especially evident from the fact that the number of vocations was decreasing and criticism of the financial administration of the Vatican was ever more frequent, as were general contestations of the Curia hierarchy.

John Paul II had to begin by facing this crisis and dealing with all the difficulties of a papacy that proved to be complicated and full of snares.
There are many keys of interpretation for the famous homily at the mass for the inauguration of his pontificate: "Do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power. Help the pope and all those who wish to serve Christ and, with Christ's power, to serve the human person and the whole of mankind! Do not be afraid! Open, I say open wide the doors for Christ! To his saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid! Christ knows 'that which is in man'. He alone knows it."

The new pope's words of encouragement involved everyone. There was an invitation to passive resistance addressed to those populations oppressed by dictatorships, especially in eastern Europe; an encouragement to every Christian, everywhere in the world, to walk serenely in the footsteps of Christ; an invitation to the priests of the Catholic Church to take up the cross and be true witnesses to the Gospel.
On that occasion, the primate of Poland, Cardinal Wyszynski, publicly embraced the pope and predicted that John Paul II would lead the Church into the new millennium.
Wojtyła worked extremely hard simultaneously tackling the Curia and global problems. He virtually visited all the parishes in Rome, beginning with the working-class neighbourhood of Garbatella, where he had worked as a young student priest.
He refused to be shut up within the august confines of the Vatican and soon began to follow the path of a pilgrim pope, shepherd of the peoples of the world. He travelled more than any of his predecessors and visited countries where a pope had never previously set foot. In the twenty-seven years of his papacy he travelled three and a half times the distance between the earth and the moon. For John Paul II travelling always had a precise purpose, it was the best way of personally reaching God's people.
His 104 pastoral journeys took him to all the four corners of the earth: he visited 127 countries and made 54 journeys within Europe – 9 of which were to Poland – he also made 7 trips to the United States and 11 to South America. He flew many times to Asia and Africa where the poverty and problems moved him deeply.

On his arrival in a country he would kneel and kiss the ground, a gesture that became very famous.
He presented himself to millions of the faithful, personally greeted as many people as possible, embraced children and the sick, caressed old people and the disadvantaged. Everywhere he went he sparked interest and enthusiasm, and in his speeches before the multitudes he sought to make the powerful face their responsibility to defend the dignity of the weak and the persecuted.
He was a citizen of the world, a pope of Rome, but his home country Poland had shaped him and influenced his way of thinking and of conceiving human dignity and freedom; it had forged his concept of a nation – understood as having a common culture, religion and language – and it strengthened in him the value of European unity. He was Polish, but at the same time he was European, deeply rooted in the whole European tradition forged by Christianity.

The pope addressed ordinary people, he went to visit his Polish brothers in Warsaw, Kraków, Auschwitz, and Poland rediscovered unity in the words of its Polish pope: "You must not be afraid, you must open frontiers", he prophesied fearlessly.
Many claim that Wojtyła brought about the "fall of communism". In actual fact, the Eastern European regimes were going through an unstoppable crisis, which the pope exploited to shake their foundations by pursuing a European unity, deeply rooted in Christianity. This is why, seven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, John Paul II wanted to celebrate the unification of Germany by going through the Brandenburg gate with Helmut Kohl on foot, though he already had difficulty walking. The other great protagonist of the liberation of Europe, Mikhail Gorbachev, was absent, though the pope had met him in the Vatican when the dust after the fall of the Berlin Wall had not yet settled on the new political order taking shape in Europe.

John Paul II battled against the communism of the atheist regimes that held Eastern Europe in a vice-like grip of military authoritarianism and spiritual aridity, but on the other hand he denounced the heavy responsibility of a capitalism and an affluent West that seemed to reject God. Hence, the pope launched his programme for renewal not only on the other side of the Iron Curtain. On his visit to the United States, the temple of capitalism, the Polish pope cast a critical eye on the symbols of capitalism, Wall Street and Manhattan. The Statue of Liberty could only reacquire its true meaning if it was accompanied by social justice and the truth of Christ: "Christ himself combined freedom and knowledge of the truth, and freedom cannot be understood except by virtue of the revealed truth. Freedom cannot be used to dominate the weak, to squander natural resources, to deny people basic necessities."

Wojtyła expressed his evangelizing mission in his first encyclicals, Redemptor Hominis of 1979 and Dives in Misericordia of 1980, in which Christian humanism and piety emerge as the only authentic tools of man's freedom. His concept of the social doctrine of the Church takes shape in the encyclical Centesimus Annus of 1991. A new challenge to “unbridled capitalism” emerged, the pope realized that in a globalized world, all the poor countries or those with a weak economy were put under impossible pressure by the big multinationals that were creating an ever-increasing  gap between the rich north and the poor south.
Nor was he afraid to confront the mafia directly. In Agrigento, distressed after meeting the parents of the judge Livatino, "a martyr of justice and, indirectly also of the faith", who was killed by the hired assassins of the Agrigento gang, he frontally attacked Cosa Nostra with the following terrible and unforgettable anathema: "These people, the Sicilian people, so attached to life, that love life and give life, can't live always under the pressure of an opposite culture, a culture of death. I say to those responsible: convert! One day the judgment of God will arrive." Yet again in the name of social peace Wojtyła claimed humanity's "right to life".

The pope's mission of renewal was not stopped or weakened by the assassination attempt during a general audience in St Peter's Square on 13 May 1981. The dramatic attack was made by Mehmet Alì Agca, a young Turkish terrorist, backed by some obscure international intrigue that has never been completely clarified. "It was 5.19 pm when the first shot was heard, then immediately afterwards there was a second. The Holy Father fell sideways, against his personal secretary who was sitting beside him."
The first bullet entered his abdomen, the second grazed his elbow and fractured the index finger of his left hand. The jeep sped into the Vatican and then went immediately to the Policlinico Gemelli where the pope underwent a long and delicate operation. After five and a half hours in the operating theatre he was declared out of danger. But John Paul II's voice was heard only the following week when the Vatican radio broadcast this message: "Pray for the brother who shot me, I offer my sufferings to the Church and the world."

The world had been shaken by the event and now breathed a sigh of relief, the pope was exhausted, but safe! The reason for the assassination attempt remains a mystery, however, the pope showed no interest in following the investigation and trials. In the famous meeting with his would-be assassin he did not attempt to find out what secret evil powers had armed him, but he astonished him by showing him, through his forgiveness and understanding, that there existed a force that was more powerful than evil and which had saved the pope.
Alì Agca was condemned to life imprisonment with a sentence that did not clarify who the instigators were: “The assassination attempt was not the work of a raving delinquent who did it alone and had no help from anyone, but it was the result of complex machinations orchestrated by unknown people interested in creating new destabilizing conditions". Evidently it was planned by people who had reason to be afraid of the evangelizing mission of the pope and the Church.
John Paul II was not interested in who had made an attempt on his life, but rather in who had protected him from almost certain death. The bullet that had entered his abdomen had strangely followed an unusual trajectory and avoided all the vital organs: "It was a maternal hand that guided the bullet's trajectory and the pope was saved at death's door … The deadly bullet stopped and the pope lives – he lives to serve!"
The pope reflected on the assassination attempt, perpetrated on the anniversary of the first apparition of Our Lady of Fátima, and he became convinced that the Virgin Mary had intervened to guide the trajectory of the bullet. He asked for the text of the third secret of Fátima to be brought to him – it was hidden away in the impenetrable archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – which when read in the light of the facts of 1981 was interpreted by the then Prefect of the Congregation, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as an attempt to kill a "bishop dressed in white", and the clairvoyants of Fátima had "… the presentiment that he was the Holy Father".

On 13 May 1982, the feast day of Our Lady of Fátima and exactly a year after the assassination attempt, the pope went on a pilgrimage to the sanctuary in Portugal to thank the Virgin Mary for her protection and to consecrate the whole world  to her, as he himself had personally anticipated with the M for Mary and the motto "Totus tuus" on his papal coat of arms.
To commemorate the event John Paul II had the bullet set in the crown of the statue to show that the forces of evil will never prevail over the forces of good.
In the twenty-seven years of his papacy John Paul II lived through various historical situations: from the cold war to the fall of the communist bloc in Europe, from globalization to the rebirth of nationalism and the struggle against international terrorism. He was always against war and for life, human dignity and freedom, and always sought a peaceful solution to conflict.
For the first time in history the Holy See took on the role of mediator in the wars that shook the world. This was the case during the war between Chile and Argentina (two Catholic countries) at the beginning of the 1980s and in the Falklands war between Britain and Argentina in 1982. The pope's attempt to mediate during the first Gulf crisis that led to the war in Iraq, by sending his cardinals to talk to the presidents of the United States and Iraq, though it was unsuccessful, went down in history.

His constant appeals to the UN, his categorical "NO" to war and his earnest quest for peace through dialogue convinced him to call a meeting, in Assisi in 1986, of all the religious leaders in the world to pray for universal peace. John Paul II invited to the city of St Francis the members of all the world religions to share a day of prayer and reflection. Priests, animists, rabbis, bonzes, imams, Shintoists, Sikhs … with the arrival of 160 official members of 60 delegations Assisi became a melting pot of faiths and languages. A series of meetings and prayer gatherings, which was to be repeated in January 2002, led to the theological concept known as the "spirit of Assisi", which was an internationally recognized moral breakthrough for the papacy.

According to the pope courage and hope in our fellow men needed to be restored. Hence he launched a timely historical analysis of the "sins" the Church had committed in the course of its centuries-old history and began a long series of requests for "forgiveness". First he wanted to heal the rupture with science: he wanted to go back to establishing a dialogue between theology and the sciences, and redress the errors of the historic trial of Galileo.
Then John Paul II asked forgiveness for the atrocities committed by the "Christian" armies during the crusades, for the errors during the 16th-century evangelization of America, for the Inquisition, for medieval integralism and so on. During the pope's historic visit to Jerusalem in 2000, he surprised the whole world by placing in a crack in the Wailing Wall a request for forgiveness for all the wrongs inflicted on the Jews and for the holocaust. The pope said 94 Mea culpas thus purging the Church's past and creating greater unity in facing the challenges of the new millennium.

Assisi, Berlin and Jerusalem were the most significant stages on this journey, arrival points, but also new starting points for the Church "of Wojtyła", which was ready to live in a world where exchange between the various religions was rapidly evolving, and where the World Youth Days constituted Wojtyła's most valid intuition that guaranteed a radiant future for the Church.
The World Youth Days began officially in 1986 and have been held in Buenos Aires, Santiago de Compostela, Czestochova, Denver, Manila, Paris, Rome and Toronto: eight immense gatherings in which John Paul II always participated personally establishing a deep and direct relationship with young people, who today represent the most consistent legacy of the Church "of Wojtyła". The World Youth Day held in Rome for the Great Jubilee of the year 2000 was attended by over two million young people from 159 different countries. They poured into the capital of Christianity in a festive mood to "embrace" the pope and show him how the Church had taken on a new lease of life under his guidance.

The Great Jubilee was a priority for Wojtyła, since he was to lead the Church into its third millennium, as Cardinal Wyszynski had foreseen in 1978. Thirty million faithful from all around the world went through the Holy Door in St Peter's that the pope had opened on Christmas night 1999 in order to purify their souls, invoke forgiveness for their sins and God's mercy.

Unfortunately with the passing of the years and the after effects of the assassination attempt, the vigorous image of the newly-elected pope, who loved swimming and skiing, was transformed into a heavier, stooped figure, who had difficulty in walking and speaking. Though worn down by disease John Paul II did not neglect his papal commitments. He never hid his pain and suffering, but right to the end he offered them as a gift to the Lord.
Thus we remember him, a few days before he died, when – now immobilized in a chair – he participated in the traditional Good Friday Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum, for the first time not in person, but from his private chapel clinging to the cross with all his little remaining strength. Benedict XVI remembers him inviting us to meditate "before this image of pain, before the suffering Son of God, before the condemned Lord, who did not want to use his power to descend from the cross, but rather he bore the suffering on the cross until the end."

Unfortunately John Paul II's condition worsened and at 9.37 pm on 2 April 2005, the Substitute for the Secretariat of State, Monsignor Leonardo Sandri, announced to the whole world praying in St Peter's Square; "Brothers and sisters, our dearly beloved Holy Father John Paul II has returned to the house of the Father."

Immediately people came to pay their last respects, world leaders arrived in Rome, but thousands and thousands of ordinary men and women, many young people, his "pope boys", came to warmly "embrace" their friend for the last time and proclaimed him a saint. "Santo, subito!" they cried. Those same young people to whom the pope, physically weak but still lucid, had turned his thoughts on his death bed: "I sought you, now you have come to me and for this I thank you".