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On this Day, in 1978: Pope John Paul II became the first Polish pope in history

On October 16, 1978, Polish Cardinal Karol Józef Wojtyła became the first non-Italian pontiff since 1523 as Pope John Paul II.

The youngest of three children, Karol Józef Wojtyła was born in the Polish town of Wadowice in 1920. Studying for the priesthood in an underground seminary in occupied Poland, he was ordained in 1946 and received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the Pontifical Angelicum University in Rome.

Wojtyła returned to Poland in the summer of 1948 for his first pastoral assignment in the village of Niegowić, at the Church of the Assumption, before being transferred to the parish of Saint Florian in Kraków.

In 1958, Pope Pius XII appointed Wojtyła as the Auxiliary Bishop of Kraków, where he began an annual tradition of saying a Midnight Mass on Christmas Day in an open field at Nowa Huta. In 1964, he was appointed Archbishop of Kraków by Pope Paul VI who then promoted him to the Sacred College of Cardinals three years later.

In August 1978, following the death of Pope Paul VI, Cardinal Wojtyła voted in the papal conclave, which elected Pope John Paul I, who died after only 33 days as pope, triggering another conclave.

The second conclave of 1978 was split between two strong candidates for the papacy: Giuseppe Cardinal Siri, the conservative Archbishop of Genoa, and the liberal Archbishop of Florence, Giovanni Cardinal Benelli. But Franz Cardinal König, Archbishop of Vienna, suggested to his fellow electors a compromise candidate: the Polish Cardinal Karol Józef Wojtyła.

Wojtyła won on the eighth ballot on the third day, with 99 votes from the 111 participating electors, and became the 264th pope, and the first non-Italian in 455 years. At only 58 years of age, he was also the youngest pope since Pope Pius IX in 1846.

As Pope John Paul II, he significantly improved the Catholic Church’s relations with Judaism, Islam, and the Eastern Orthodox Church. He was one of the most travelled world leaders in history, visiting 129 countries during his pontificate, and is recognised as helping to end Communist rule in his native Poland and eventually all of Europe.

But despite his modern role, his rule was not without controversy. John Paul II was also widely criticised for a variety of his views, including his opposition to the ordination of women and use of contraception, his support for the Second Vatican Council and its reform of the liturgy, and his response to child sexual abuse within the Church.

On April 2, 2005, John Paul II spoke his final words in Polish, “Pozwólcie mi odejść do domu Ojca” (“Allow me to depart to the house of the Father”), to his aides.

Inspired by calls of “Santo Subito!” (“Make him a Saint Immediately!”) from the crowds gathered during the funeral Mass that he celebrated, his successor Benedict XVI began the beatification process for his predecessor, who became widely known as “John Paul II the Great”.

With two miracles attributed to him – the healing of a man’s Parkinson’s disease and the healing of Costa Rican woman’s terminal brain aneurysm – the late Pope’s canonisation was confirmed in 2013. The canonisation Mass was celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican in front of a crowd of at least 500,000 people, with an estimated 300,000 others watching from video screens placed around Rome.

Find out more Central European history in our new On this Day series.

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