45 Years Ago, the Great John Paul II Was Elected Pope

This 20th-century saint put an indelible mark on the papacy and the world.

Pope John Paul II greets the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square Oct. 22, 1978, six days after his election.
Pope John Paul II greets the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square Oct. 22, 1978, six days after his election. (photo: Staff / AFP via Getty Images)

Monday, Oct. 16 marks 45 years to the day that Cardinal Pericles Felici announced that “Karol, Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, Wojtyla” had been elected pope. He was the first non-Italian since Dutchman Adrian VI in 1523.

From the perspective of nearly half a century — more than half of which was taken up by the pontificate of St. John Paul II — there’s no question Wojtyła put an indelible mark on the papacy and the world.

Forty-five years ago, the world was divided into two blocs: the Soviet and the West. Karol Wojtyła, the Pope from “a far-away country,” came from a local Church that, by 1978, had spent almost 40 years under occupation: six under the German Nazis and 35 under the Russian Soviets. How many people would have predicted, that October night in 1978, that within a dozen years, Europe’s rusty Iron Curtain would be breached and that Germans would be dancing on top of the Berlin Wall? None of that would have been likely but for the Polish Pope and the Revolution of Hope he sparked with Solidarność in Poland. The Berlin Wall did not fall in November 1989; it started coming down in a Gdańsk shipyard in August 1980.

Today, the world remains divided and communism (in mutant forms of “socialism,” “democratic socialism,” etc.) continues to plague that world. But no one can doubt that the world changed profoundly thanks to the new Bishop of Rome.

As Pope, John Paul strove to make clear that Vatican II was not a break with the Church’s past: the Church did not start in 1962. John Paul was instrumental in affirming the continuity of the Council with the Church’s past, stressing the organic development of doctrine against those who wanted to invent or “sing” a new church into being. 

That was particularly true in the area of moral theology. 2023 also marks the 30th anniversary of John Paul II’s encyclical, Veritatis splendor which, at least temporarily, put to rest various trends in revisionist moral theology that were incompatible with the Church’s moral tradition. Three decades later, it is still worthwhile to go back to Veritatis splendor, which reminds us of some basic truths. These include the truth that there are moral absolutes, a corollary of which is that there are such things as intrinsically evil acts, i.e., acts that no justifications will make moral. John Paul also reminded us that conscience does not invent moral norms but recognizes them and, therefore, conscience is accountable to the Truth, not my truth or your truth. Whether the game is shifted from objective truth to “pastoral charity,” the fact remains the same: there is an objective moral order before which man stands and to which he should ever more increasingly conform himself. While various factors may limit his moral culpability, they do not change the moral truth of an act or the objective moral order in his case.

John Paul devoted particular attention to marital and sexual ethics, in no small part because he was keenly aware that the fundamental moral drama of our times is being played out in the realms of marriage and the family. From his creative teaching of the “theology of the body” during his Wednesday General Audiences early in his pontificate, through his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, and many other actions and documents John Paul reaffirmed and developed the Church’s teaching in these important areas. Of course, Karol Wojtyła had been doing that before his papal election. His 1960 book (expanded in 1962), Love and Responsibility, remains in this author’s judgment one of the most important books of the 20th century. His defense of Humanae vitae — from his writings to his convening of a Kraków group of theologians to address the question of contraception — stands in marked contrast to many hierarchies, which failed to teach the full truth of marriage after Paul VI’s “sign of contradiction” in his encyclical.

Perhaps the most important aspect of John Paul’s life was, however, showing people how to live the Christian life. Part of that comes from his Polish experience: the Church was not just a “part” of life for many Poles, but it was a way of living and seeing the world that shaped and formed how they approached the rest of life. The idea that being a Catholic could be doffed like one’s clothes after Sunday Mass had not taken root then in Poland, and John Paul showed what being Catholic meant: a comprehensive approach to life that was not put on and taken off depending on the situation, political opportunities, or “secular” life. 

John Paul showed that through all the phases of life, including his extended passage into old age. Those who recall his full pontificate remember a vigorous man, handsome and athletic, who stepped out of the conclave in 1978. He stood in marked contrast to many of his predecessors, not least of all because of his age: Wojtyła was 58 when he became Pope. Those who followed his pontificate also saw how John Paul demonstrated the place of age and illness in life and the family, up through his death. If anybody has any questions about how profoundly John Paul (founder of World Youth Days) changed the Church, consider: in 1978, how many people would have said that, when the Pope died 26 years later, hundreds of thousands of young people would gather in tears beneath the Apostolic Palace?

Well done, good and faithful servant, who continues his work for the People of God in the heavenly court.