published : 2023-10-17

October 16, 1978: The Unexpected Election of Pope John Paul II

First Polish pope becomes leader of Catholic Church in historic move

A photo of Pope John Paul II delivering a sermon, taken with a Nikon D850 camera.

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

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.

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

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.

John Paul II's early life was marked by tragedy, losing both his parents and older sister at a young age.

An image of Wadowice, Poland, the birthplace of Pope John Paul II, captured with a Canon EOS R6 camera.

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

Despite facing challenges during World War II and the Nazi occupation of Poland, John Paul II pursued his studies and was ordained as a priest in 1946.

His rapid rise within the church saw him become an auxiliary bishop of Kraków in 1958, Archbishop of Kraków in 1964, and finally a Cardinal in 1967.

John Paul II participated in the August 1978 conclave that followed the death of Pope John Paul I, who served for just 33 days.

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

The announcement of his papacy caused confusion among the crowd, with some initially thinking the newly elected pope was African.

A photograph of the Sistine Chapel, where the conclave took place, taken with a Sony A7 III camera.

John Paul II addressed the crowd in Italian, expressing his surprise and admitting his fear of receiving the nomination.

He went on to serve as Pope for over 26 years, becoming one of the longest-serving popes in history.

John Paul II's papacy included seven visits to the United States and numerous significant events.

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

His death led to calls for his canonization, and he was beatified in 2011 and canonized as a saint in 2014.