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Thursday, June 1, 2023
ISTANBUL, Apr 3 2005 (IPS) - “Ma, Chi è? (Who is He?)” That was the question on the minds of many at St. Peter’s Square on a balmy autumn evening on Oct. 16, 1978 when Cardinal Pericle Felici announced: “Habemus Papam (We have a Pope)..”
The identity of the new Pope was revealed, as is the custom, slowly. “Carolum,” Cardinal Felici said, and then paused for some seconds after reading out that first name.
The crowd was mystified. There was no Carolum among those who had been considered the ‘papabili’ or the ‘Pope-ables’. The only name that immediately came to mind was Italian Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri, the octogenarian Cardinal Dean hardly seen as ‘Pope-able’.
Cardinal Felici then gave the surname. “Wojtyla” (pronounced Voitiua), he said, answering the question but not immediately solving the mystery.
“Ma, Chi è?” some in the crowd murmured. “Could be an African,” someone said.
“E’ Polacco, (he is Polish),” a ‘Vaticanista’, a journalist covering the Vatican told colleagues. Calls were made to the Polish embassy in Rome to determine just how to pronounce the name of the new Pope.
Cardinal Karol Josef Wojtyla then appeared at the balcony to face Romans. He would be the leader of Catholics around the world, but at St. Peter’s Square this was his own flock, since a Pope is also Bishop of Rome.
Over more than a quarter of a century of papacy, the third longest in history, the ‘who-he’ prelate from Krakow was to become a towering figure in history.
He leaves a manifold legacy, both within and outside his Church.
History could easily record him as the main actor in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Polish rulers called him the “detonator” of the peaceful uprising. Soviet leader at the time Mikhail Gorbachev said later that Eastern Europe could not have changed without the Pope.
Some reports mention that the Pope and then U.S. president Ronald Reagan may have deliberately helped one another bring about the collapse of the Soviet empire.
In his book published last February, the Pope spoke of the “inherent social and economic failure” of the communist system rather than claiming credit for bringing down communism “with my own hand.”
That may be part modesty. But it brings to the fore the strength of moral force over physical power. It would answer that often-quoted question raised once by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin – how many divisions does the Pope have.
A Pontiff has 107 Swiss Guards (the colorful Cohors Helvetica), well short of even one division. But the Pope’s moral force can be far stronger than military hardware.
It was never clear whether communists were behind Turkish gunman Ali Agca who tried to assassinate the Pope in 1981. Pope John Paul II wrote in his book that Agca acted “on commission” but never publicly revealed his thoughts about any possible involvement of the secret services from communist regimes. The Pontiff pardoned his would-be assassin and even went to see him in an Italian prison as “a brother”.
John Paul II may have helped overturn communism, but he was no great fan of the capitalist system that replaced it. He once called globalisation “a new form of colonialism.” The developing world had a strong ally in Pope John Paul II.
John Paul II who called himself “globe-trotter” spent a total of two years, or 6.4 percent of his time, away from the Vatican. He logged more than a million kilometres, equal to 29 trips around the world. Until 1963, no Pope had left Italy.
The ‘who-he’ Pontiff of 26 years ago could go down in history as the most visible person ever; it is estimated that hundreds of millions of people saw him in person. One speech on a visit to Manila in the Philippines in1985 drew an estimated four million people.
What lies ahead after a period of mourning in many lands is the secret gathering of the College of Cardinals comprising 117 eligible electors in the confines of the Sistine Chapel to select a successor.
Through the period of mourning, thoughts have been turning to the next Pope. No Cardinal can campaign openly but they will have to choose from a long list of papabili that includes Italians, other Europeans, Latin Americans and Africans.
*Hilmi Toros, a veteran Vatican correspondent, covered the election of Pope John Paul II and the early years of his papacy.
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