Home Top Stories On this day in history, October 16, 1978, Pope John Paul II of Poland is elected head of Catholic Church

On this day in history, October 16, 1978, Pope John Paul II of Poland is elected head of Catholic Church

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On this day in history, October 16, 1978, Pope John Paul II of Poland is elected head of Catholic Church

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Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyła was elected pope and took the regnal name “Pope John Paul II” on this day in history, Oct. 16, 1978. 

The election of John Paul II marked the first time a non-Italian had been selected to lead the Catholic Church in over 400 years. 

He was elected on the eighth ballot during the second conclave held in the year 1978, following the death of Pope John Paul I just over a month into that pope’s reign. 

John Paul II took his name to honor his predecessor, John Paul I. 

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Born as Karol Józef Wojtyła in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920, the future pope was the youngest of the three children of Karol Wojtyła and Emilia Kaczorowska, notes his official biography on the Vatican website.

As a child and young adult, John Paul II was heavily involved in theater, even helping to organize a clandestine theater group, said the Vatican. 

Young boy with his parents

A young Karol Wojtyła with his parents, Karol Wojtyła and Emilia Kaczorowska. Both of Pope John Paul II’s parents would die by the time he was 20 years old.  (Daniele Darolle/Sygma via Getty Images)

John Paul II’s early life was marked by tragedy. 

“At 20 I had already lost all the people I loved, and even those I might have loved, like my older sister who, they said, died six years before I was born,” Pope John Paul II told the writer Andre Frossard in 1984. 

His mother died in 1929, when he was just eight years old; and his brother Edmund died in 1932 at age 26 after contracting scarlet fever while working as a doctor. 

It was his father’s sudden death in 1941 that sparked John Paul II to think seriously about the priesthood.

The election of John Paul II marked the first time a non-Italian had been selected to lead the Catholic Church in over 400 years. 

The outbreak of World War II, however, and the Nazi occupation of Poland threw a wrench in these plans, notes the Vatican website.  

In 1942, while Poland was occupied by the Nazis, John Paul II began studying for the priesthood at a secret underground seminary in Kraków. 

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After the war ended, he continued his studies in a more typical manner at the now-legally reopened major seminary of the Archdiocese of Kraków, as well as at the school of theology at the Jagellonian University, said his biography. 

He was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Kraków on Nov. 1, 1946, and began doctoral studies in Rome. 

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian elected pope in over 400 years. (Getty Images)

On July 4, 1958, Pope Pius XII appointed the then-Fr. Wojtyła as auxiliary bishop of Kraków. 

Six years later, he was promoted as the Archbishop of Kraków.

Archbishop Wojtyła was elevated to the College of Cardinals, becoming Cardinal Wojtyła on June 26, 1967. 

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John Paul II participated in the August 1978 conclave that saw Cardinal Albino Luciani elected as Pope John Paul I. 

Yet John Paul I lived only 33 days before dying suddenly on Sept. 28, 1978, at age 65, necessitating another conclave. 

In a relatively short conclave, John Paul II was elected on the third day after just eight ballots. 

The second conclave of 1978 — the most recent “year of three popes” — began on Oct. 14, just 10 days after John Paul I’s funeral. 

In a relatively short conclave, John Paul II was elected on the third day after just eight ballots. White smoke billowed from the Sistine Chapel just after 6:00 p.m., and the world waited to see who had been elected.

Pope John Paul II Shea Stadium Mass

During his papacy, John Paul II visited the United States seven times. (Getty Images)

Cardinal Pericle Felici was tasked with announcing the person elected pope — and he reportedly asked another Polish cardinal how to correctly pronounce “Wojtyła.” 

“Annuntio vobis, gaudium magnum, Habemus Papam,” said Felici, saying the traditional Latin phrase meaning, “We announce with great joy, we have a new pope.” 

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A huge crowd that had gathered in St. Peter’s Square waited as Felici announced the new pope as “Carolum Wojtyła,” the Latinization of John Paul II’s birth name. 

“Qui sibi nomen imposuit Ioannem Paulum II,” continued Felici, meaning, “He has taken the name John Paul II.” 

large crowd at St. Peter's square

A crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square to learn which man had been elected pope. There was much confusion when the new pope was announced as “Carolum Wojtyła,” with some people thinking perhaps the cardinal was African.  (Vittoriano Rastelli/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The crowd was confused, and many thought the newly elected pope was perhaps African, said the Catholic publication Zenit. 

Rather than begin with the customary Latin blessing, the polyglot Pope John Paul II addressed the crowd in Italian. 

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(The pope was reportedly fluent in at least six languages, and proficient in many others.) 

In his greeting, John Paul II remarked that he was called to the papacy “from a far country” and that he was “afraid to receive this nomination.” 

He also requested that if he were to make a mistake in his Italian, to “please correct me.” 

Pope John Paul II in full papal regalia

Pope John Paul II, center, addressing the crowd in the Vatican after he was elected pope.  (Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

John Paul II would go on to serve the third-longest papacy in the history of the Catholic Church. 

He died on April 2, 2005, at the age of 84. 

Shortly after his death, calls began for his canonization. 

His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, waived the customary five-year waiting period after someone’s death to open the cause for canonization.

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John Paul II was beatified on May 1, 2011, by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI. 

He was then canonized, or officially declared a saint in the Catholic Church, by Pope Francis, along with his predecessor Pope John XIII, on April 27, 2014.

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