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1978: Polish bishop is new Pope

VIDEO : The Pope talks about Poland's Catholic Church

Cardinals at the Vatican have chosen the first non-Italian Pope for more than 400 years.

Catholics around the world have been astonished by the choice of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the Archbishop of Krakow.

Few people had suggested him as a possible successor to John Paul I, who died last month after just 33 days in office. He is barely known outside his native Poland.

After two days and eight votes, the result of the final, conclusive vote giving a two-thirds majority plus one to the Polish bishop was signalled with a plume of white smoke above the roof of the Sistine Chapel, in accordance with ancient tradition.

The new Pope, who will be known as John Paul II, is also the youngest this century, at 58 years old.

Emotional speech

In the early evening, the new Pope appeared before the crowd of about 200,000 who had gathered in St Peter's Square.

He stepped on to the central balcony of St Peter's to a rapturous ovation from the crowd, and gave his first blessing as Pope.

Then, in a speech that was at times emotional, he told how he had been afraid to accept the nomination, but had done so in obedience to Christ.

Speaking in fluent Italian, he put paid to fears that a non-Italian would not be able to communicate effectively, saying, "in speaking your - our - language, if I make mistakes, then correct me."

The crowd roared its approval, and the Pope smiled in response, with a hint of the informality that characterised the style of his predecessor, John Paul I.

Uncompromising stand

The appointment brought an ecstatic response from Poland, where as Bishop of Krakow Karol Wojtyla took an uncompromising stand against the Communist regime.

There has been no official response from the government in Warsaw.

More than 80% of Poland's 35 million people are practising Catholics, maintaining their faith in the face of strong opposition and sometimes brutal suppression from the Communist authorities.

The new Pope warned as recently as last year that the Church was facing the threat of "programmed atheisation" in eastern Europe.

It is thought likely that the fight for freedom of religion in the Communist bloc will be a major theme of his papacy.

In Context
Pope John Paul II celebrated the 25th year of his papacy in 2003, and his term of office was among the longest in the history of the Church.

It was almost cut brutally short in 1981, when a Turkish fanatic, Mehmet al-Agca, shot and seriously wounded him in St Peter's Square.

After a long recovery, he visited and forgave his would-be assassin.

His approach was "hands-on", with frequent humour and informality, endearing him to millions across the world.

However, he took a conservative stand against divorce, abortion, homosexual unions and rights for unmarried couples, and his critics accused him of being out of touch with the modern world.

He travelled widely, visiting more than 100 countries. One of the earliest trips, in 1979, was to Poland.

He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2001, and began to have trouble completing speeches.

In 2002 he returned to his native Poland. The visit was widely viewed as a farewell to the Catholic community closest to his heart.

The Pope died at 2137 (1937 GMT) on Saturday 2 April 2005 after he failed to recover from a throat operation due to breathing problems.


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