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John Paul II elected Pope on this day 44 years ago

On October 16, 1978, Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyła took the name of John Paul II, becoming the first non-Italian Pope to be elected in four centuries.

The Cardinals who had gathered for the conclave in 1978 decided that the 58-year-old Archbishop of Kraków, southern Poland, was the one best suited to lead the Holy See for the decades to come. He succeeded John Paul I, who died on September 28 after the shortest, 33-day-long pontificate in modern times.

As pointed out by experts, Wojtyła was a compromise candidate between the supporters of the reforms of Vatican II and the conservative milieu.

The Polish Pope was elected following a conclave in which 111 cardinals had voted. Of these, 56 were Europeans, including 26 Italians. In accordance with the law, the deliberations and voting took place in the Sistine Chapel. Ultimately, Wojtyła got over 90 votes.

He became the 264th Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church and the first Pope since 1903 never to have been an official of the Roman Curia.

In his first speech, to the main Italian crowd that had gathered in St Peter’s Square, John Paul II said that the cardinals had “called on me from a distant country, far away, but always so close to its union in Christian faith and tradition.”

“I was afraid to accept this choice, but I do so in a spirit of obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ and in total entrustment to His Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary,” he said.

The solemn Mass inaugurating the pontificate took place on October 22 in St Peter’s Square in Rome. In his homily, the new Pope said: “Do not be afraid! Open, open wide the door to Christ.” This message is considered one of the social and theological foundations of his over 26-years-long pontificate.

Cardinal Wojtyła decided to take the name John Paul II to honour his recently deceased predecessor John Paul I. The Polish Pope broke a number of records during his pontificate, including the highest number of international pilgrimages (104). His most frequented destination was Poland (9 visits).

In total, he visited 129 countries during his pontificate, drawing sizable crowds and addressing ecstatic audiences.

Three years after becoming the Pope, he survived an assassination attempt in Rome, when he was shot by Mehmet Ali Ağca in St Peter’s Square.

John Paul II left a legacy of an ecumenical Pope who attempted to improve the Catholic Church’s relations with Judaism, Islam, and the Eastern Orthodox Church, while maintaining the institution’s conservative positions on matters such as abortion, artificial contraception, the ordination of women, and a celibate clergy.

He has also played an important role in providing the leadership needed to end Communist rule in his native Poland and the rest of Europe.

The Pope died on April 2, 2005. On December 19, 2009, he was proclaimed venerable by his successor, Benedict XVI and beatified on May 1, 2011. He was canonised on April 27, 2014.

Although it is traditional to celebrate saints’ feast days on the anniversary of their death, that of John Paul II (October 22) is celebrated on the anniversary of his papal inauguration.

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