Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope following the death of John Paul I in 1978, becoming the first Slav to hold that office and the first non-Italian since Hadrian VI (1522-1523), a native of Utrecht, Holland.
On Oct. 16, the second day of the second conclave of 1978, Karol Wojtyla was elected the 263rd successor of St. Peter. Choosing to be called John Paul II, he began his pontificate with a simple ceremony of inauguration.
Early in 1979 he went to Mexico to open the Conference of Bishops of Latin America in Puebla, Mexico. On that occasion he set the pattern for his later foreign visits, kissing the ground of the country and celebrating Mass in front of vast crowds. Later in 1979 he visited Poland where dramatic scenes of welcome were tolerated by the communist government. It was there that the new Pope wanted to show his support of Solidarity, a free-trade union movement that was also a de facto political opposition led by its founder Lech Walesa.
Poland's prime minister kept the Soviet Union informed of the Pope’s addresses during the nine-day epic visit giving the workers movement tools of resistance. One-third of the Polish nation saw the Pope in person, and virtually everyone else saw him on television or heard him on the radio.
Then, on Dec. 16, 1980, John Paul II wrote an unprecedented personal letter to Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev, urging full respect for the integrity of Poland and the rights of his people, and signalling his non-negotiable support for Solidarity to whom he sent immense amounts of financial help.
The Kremlin was tempted to retaliate by imposing martial law and invading Poland, as was done in Prague and Budapest, but the Warsaw government cautioned Brezhnev against such action: “The Pope will defend his country and fight in the front line. A third world war could ensue and the world will be allied with the Vatican rather than with the Kremlin.”
It would be simpler to make the Pope disappear. Mehmet Ali Agca, a professional assassin who was in jail in Turkey for the murder of an American journalist, was acquired and given board and lodging in the Romanian Embassy in Rome. Each Wednesday he would go to St. Peter’s Square to rehearse his plan to assassinate the Pope. His attempt at the crime on May 13, 1981, was unsuccessful, leaving John Paul wounded and Agca arrested.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, visited John Paul II in the Vatican on Dec. 1, 1989, symbolically marking the end of 70 years of fierce Soviet anti-Catholic propaganda and persecution.
In the mid-1990s, Gorbachev publicly conceded what was obvious to the Catholic people of central and eastern Europe throughout the 1980’s – that John Paul II had been the pivotal figure in the complex events that led to the collapse of the communist regime in 1989.
That the Pope did this, not by issuing anathemas or by calling princes to repentance, but by igniting a revolution of conscience that ultimately produced a nonviolent political revolution, demonstrated in action the morally driven approach to world politics that he had outlined to the United Nations in 1979. Is it not prodigious and incredible to see the current successor of Gorbachev, Vladimir Putin, attending an Easter service with the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow?
But John Paul II was less successful in engaging communist regimes in Asia. More than two decades of efforts to open a line of dialogue with the People’s Republic of China were largely frustrated, although diplomatic contacts between the Holy See and the PRC took place.
In November 1983, the Pope wrote a private letter to Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, underscoring the Church’s respect for Chinese culture and requesting a formal dialogue, but it was never answered and Xiaoping’s successors persistently blocked the Pope’s efforts to visit any part of China. Nevertheless, Pope Benedict XVI did not give up what John Paul II had set out to achieve, and Francis continues to reach out to the new president, Xi Jinping.
The Holy See’s relations with Vietnam were also difficult during John Paul II’s pontificate, although some progress was made in 1990 regarding the appointment of bishops. The Pope also had a very friendly relationship with Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who visited the Pontiff at the Vatican in 1999.
Determined to remain himself, Karol Wojtyla gave a distinct personal stamp to the office of Peter. Every year he hosted a seminar at the papal summer residence Castel Gandolfo for humanities scholars in the natural sciences, some of whom were agnostics and atheists. With the exception of the times when he was in hospital or on vacation (he enjoyed hiking in the Italian Alps), he invited guests for lunch or dinner every day, drawing information about the Church and the world from a diverse set of personalities.
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