Catholic Flashback: Remembering the 1978 election of Pope St. John Paul II

October 16, 1978:
The first balcony appearance of newly-elected Pope John Paul II (CNS File Photo)
Where were you on October 16, 1978?
I was between classes at college in Philadelphia when word came through the hallways that white smoke had been seen coming from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel.
After three days of waiting, we finally had a new pope! I rushed to turn on my tiny black and white TV, and watched as the crowds grew in St. Peter’s Square while commentators speculated as to which Italian cardinal might become the 264th leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
I will never forget the announcement in Latin that Cardinal Karol Jozef Wojtyla (1920-2005), at age 58, had been elected as the 263rd successor of St. Peter the Apostle. The news commentators were struggling to figure out who he was, from which country he came, and how to pronounce his name. 
You see, Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. Those reporting on the conclave from both the Catholic and secular press were all  assuming that this new pontiff would also be Italian. Instead, the College of Cardinals elected the Archbishop of Krakow, Poland, who had served in that position since 1963 and who was named a cardinal by Pope Paul VI in 1967.
Ten interesting facts about the election of Pope John Paul II:
1. The Year of Three Popes:
This was the second time in less than eight weeks that Catholics from around the world gathered in front of our televisions to learn the outcome of a papal election. Called the “Year of Three Popes,” 1978 included the death of Blessed Pope Paul VI on August 6, the election of Patriarch of Venice Albino Luciani as Pope John Paul I on August 26, followed by his sudden death 33 days later on September 28. His pontificate is the shortest in our modern era. The Church and the world were stunned by the death of this new pontiff, as the College of Cardinals were called back to Rome for yet another conclave.
2. Who were the electors?
The conclave to elect Pope St. John Paul II began on October 14, 1978. Attending as electors were the 111 members of the College of Cardinals who had not yet reached age 80. 
The geographic breakdown includes: 25 cardinals from Italy, 30 more from other European nations, 12 Africa, 9 from Asia, and 4 from Oceania, 19 from South America, and 12 from North America.
3. The accommodations:
Garry O’Connor described the sparse living conditions of the cardinal-electors in his 2005 book, Universal Father: A Life of Pope John Paul II
“They expected it might take a long time to elect the next pope, while accommodation or cells were cast for by lot–some in poky little offices with unplugged and dead telephones, others in forty-foot high Renaissance reception salons They slept on ‘a simple infirmary bed borrowed from the College of Propaganda Fidei; with a red-shaded lamp by the bed which was too faint to read by; a wash basin, soap (made by Donge of Paris) and Kleenex; a bucket for slops; a writing-table with note-paper and an ashtray, a prie-dieu’. Cardinal Siri of Genoa, a leading conservative, said ‘It is like being buried alive’, but the cautious, gentle Cardinal Hume of Westminster commented, ‘Many people criticize the way a conclave is arranged, but it came to me that all these arrangements were symbolic–there was nothing between the cardinals and God. That seemed to me to be right.”
 
4. The voting:
As accounts of the three days of secret proceedings trickled out over the months and years that followed the conclave, we learned that two Italian cardinals, Archbishop of Genoa Giuseppe Siri and Archbishop of Florence Giovanni Benelli were in the forefront in the ballots, but neither was able to go ahead and reach the required two-thirds plus one majority vote (equalling 75 or more necessary for election).
On the second day of voting, Cardinal Wojtyla was suggested as a compromise candidate by Cardinal Franz König (1905-2004), then-Archbishop of Vienna. With a number of supporters from the camps of Cardinals Siri and Benelli, along with most of the American cardinals (led by Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia), Wojtyla was elected on the eighth ballot with 99 of the 111 votes. 
“With obedience in faith to Christ, my Lord, and with trust in the Mother of Christ and the Church, in spite of great difficulties, I accept.”
—Cardinal Wojtyla upon learning that he had been elected in the 1978 conclave 
5. The new papal name:
Cardinal Wojtyla honored the brief legacy of his predecessor by adopting his name and becoming Pope John Paul II. 
Pope John Paul I had been the first pope to take two names upon his election. He adopted the pontifical names of his two predecessors who led the Church through the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965): Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) and Pope Paul VI (1963-1978).
6. The announcement:
Cardinal Pericle Felici (1911-1982) was the senior Cardinal-Deacon in 1978, and thus had the rare honor of making two papal introductions with the “Habemus papam” announcements for both Popes John Paul I and John Paul II. In the same capacity, Cardinal Felici had the privilege of bestowing to each of them the pallium at their papal inaugurations.
Cardinal Felici made the historic announcement for Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978 at 7:15 pm from the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square:

“Anuntio vobis gaudium magnum:
HABEMUS PAPAM! 
Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum,
Dominum Carolum Sanctæ Romanæ Ecclesiæ Cardinalem Wojtyla
Qui sibi nomen imposuit Ioannis Pauli.”
(“I announce to you a great joy:
We have a Pope!
The Most Eminent and Most Reverend Lord,
Lord Karol Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church Wojtyla
Who took himself to the name John Paul.”

Videos:

Watch the announcement for Pope John Paul I here and Pope John Paul II here.

7. Reflections from Cardinal Wojtyla’s priest-secretary:
Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz (born 1939) of Krakow, who had been serving as the priest-secretary of Cardinal Wojtyla since 1966, was with the growing crowds below in St. Peter’s Square awaiting the announcement. 
In an interview with L’Osservatore Romano, he recalled that many of the pilgrims who surrounded him thought the announced name sounded African. He noted that “protocol requires that before speaking, the new Pontiff should bestow a blessing in Latin, but the Polish Pope chose to speak first in Italian with a greeting that was historic: ‘I have been called from a faraway land…If I make a mistake, please correct me.”
Cardinal Dziwisz spoke of his close relationship with Wojtyla since he became his priest-secretary in twelve years prior: “That day (in 1966) I learned to be close to him. I did so for 39 years, first in Krakow and later in Rome. My clothes were soiled with his blood on May 13, 1981.  And I have again recalled the words he wrote for St. Stanislaw, the patron of Poland: ‘If the word does not convert, blood will.’  I was always close to Karol Wojtyla. Me, a priest caressed by a gift and a mystery.” 
8. The first words and blessing of Pope John Paul II:
After the announcement, the newly-elected Holy Father appeared on the balcony and spoke briefly in Italian, instead of the immediately delivering his first Urbi et Orbi blessing:
“Praised be Jesus Christ! Dear brothers and sisters, we are still all very saddened by the death of the very dear Pope John Paul I. 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 and with total trust in his Mother, the Most Holy Madonna. 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. And so I introduce myself to you all, to confess our common faith, our hope, our trust in the Mother of Christ and of the Church, and also to begin again on this path of history and of the Church with the help of God and with that of men.” 

9. Be Not Afraid!

Later that night, Pope John Paul II ate dinner with the cardinals before retiring to handwrite the homily with his famous words, “Be not afraid. Open wide the doors to Christ.” 

10. Memories from one of the cardinal-electors:
In a 2011 interview with Richard Allen Greene of CNN given the year before his death, 89-year old Cardinal Luis Aponte Martínez (1922-2012), one of only five cardinal-electors from the 1978 conclave who was still alive, shared his memories of the election.
The Archbishop-Emeritus of San Juan, Puerto Rico recalled Wojtyla’s election as the most emotional moment of his life:

“We came to congratulate him, but when (Polish) Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski came to pay his respects, the pope stood up and went to him and embraced him. That for us was a terrific moment. We all cried.”
On electing a Polish pope, Cardinal Aponte noted:
“The electors were taking a chance, but they made a wonderful choice. He had suffered a good deal, he had been a prisoner of the Communists.” Aponte added that it helped his cause “that he came from a suffering country.”
Cardinal Luis Aponte Martínez congratulates Pope John Paul II after his election on October 16, 1978
(Photo: Cardinal Aponte Collection)
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Enjoy this 24:50 minute video from CBS News:  “Pope John Paul II: The Surprising Election
https://youtu.be/e-neuwiRdUo

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.