Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński with Pope John Paul II - Polish Bishops Conference

40th Anniversary of Election of Pope John Paul II Recalled by Former College Rector

‘A Sign of God’s Special Grace’

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“The day after Cardinal Karol Wojtyła’s election as Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński asked him how he felt as Pope. John Paul II answered that he felt as if he had always been here. To that, cardinal Wyszynski replied that it was the grace of the state, a sign of God’s special grace,” said Archbishop Józef Michalik who, at that time, was the rector of the Polish College in Rome, from whence Cardinal Wojtyła, went to the conclave at which he was elected pope, 40 years ago, on October 16, 1978.

“We could have anticipated that there was real hope for this choice. There were reasons for it,” added Archbishop Józef Michalik, who died in 2016 at age 89.

“Cardinal Karol Wojtyla came to Rome much earlier, before October 16th, and he stayed at the Polish College,” said Msgr. Michalik, recalling the time preceding the conclave 40 years ago. The Polish College was founded by the Resurrectionists in 1866 and “served the Polish cause for years.” As Archbishop Michalik explained, the bishops used to stay there during their visits to Rome, and so did, among others, Cardinal Wojtyła.

Card. Karol Wojtyła’s arrival at that time was connected with the funeral of the deceased Holy Father, Pope John Paul I. Msgr. Michalik mentioned that he went to meet Cardinal Wojtyla at the airport, to welcome him and bring him to the College. However, he asked to go to St. Peter’s Basilica first, where the body of late Pope John Paul I was already exposed. Archbishop Michalik recalled that entering the basilica and seeing the cardinals present there, he asked Cardinal Wojtyła how many of them he did not know personally. “The Cardinal thought about it and replied: seven. For me, it was an indirect answer, that there is actually no other Cardinal who would not know personally only seven Cardinals. This indicated that our Cardinal’s chances were serious in the upcoming conclave,” said Archbishop Michalik.

Archbishop Michalik also spoke about other signs that indicated that the Cardinals’ thoughts would be directed towards the Cardinal from Poland. One of them was the fact that Cardinal Wojtyla, as one of several Cardinal electors, was asked to give a lecture to the entire College of Cardinals on the future of the Church, during the session that traditionally took place just before the conclave. “We could have anticipated that there was real hope for this choice,” said the Archbishop.

As he recalled, until the conclave, Cardinal Wojtyła joined the residents of the Polish College for the daily prayers. Often, including during the common meals, also before the first conclave, there was talk about the new Pope’s election. “We joked, commented on the press reports and, sometimes, spoke seriously,” said Msgr. Michalik. “The Cardinal always took these jokes and conversations with a smile, and sometimes he responded with humor,” he noted.

He also told about an event that took place precisely on the day of the election, in the chapel of the Polish College. Morning Mass was presided over by Cardinal Wojtyła. During the prayer of the faithful, one of the priests spontaneously prayed that Cardinal Karol Wojtyła would become pope. Cardinal Wojtyla brought this prayer of the faithful to an end. He referred to this intention by invoking Jesus’ strong words to Peter in the Gospel of Saint Matthew 16:21–23, where Jesus says: “Get out of my sight, Satan! You are a hindrance to me because you think not in the way of God, but in the way of men” (Mt 16:23). Finally, he added his own intention, asking that God’s servant, who would accept the choice with humility and accomplish God’s will, be chosen.

Msgr. Michalik, when asked about the moment of the election, answered that he received it with great joy. He did not go to St. Peter’s Square on that afternoon precisely because of the possibility that Card. Wojtyła would be elected, and wanting to remain available, if that were the case, to provide any necessary information or show the room in which Card. Wojtyła was living just before the conclave. “When the name of Karol Wojtyla was announced, the phones almost immediately started ringing,” he said.

After the election, the rector of the Polish College and the residents, who had watched the conclave on TV, went together to the chapel. “We sang the Te Deum together, giving thanks for this event and we recommended the new Pope to God,” he said.

The next day, together with the new Holy Father’ secretary, the now Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, Archbishop Michalik went to the Vatican and brought the Pope the things he had left at the Polish College. “We found him in prayer, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, clothed in white. When I greeted the Holy Father, he asked me to wait a moment, and then we met. He talked very freely about recent events and invited us to visit him.”

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Paweł Rytel-Andrianik

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