April 28th, 2011
01:00 AM ET
By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
(CNN) - John Paul II reigned as pope for so long, travelled so widely, spoke so many languages and stamped his personality and theology so firmly on the throne of St. Peter that it takes a very long memory to remember just what a shock it was when a secretive group of men in red robes selected the Archbishop of Krakow, Poland, to replace the short-lived Pope John Paul I.
Cardinal Luis Aponte Martinez has such a memory.
Now 89 years old, the archbishop emeritus of San Juan de Puerto Rico is one of only five men still living from the 1978 meeting of cardinals in Rome that elected John Paul II.
Looking back as the Vatican prepares to declare John Paul II "Blessed" on Sunday - the last step before sainthood - Aponte is certain he and his fellow cardinals made the right choice.
"I always thought he was a genius, a man who could speak 10 or more languages, a poet, a theologian, a philosopher, a great sportsman," Aponte told CNN.
And he was fearless, the cardinal says.
"He was not afraid of anything, and whatever he had to say, he said it," Aponte says. "He went to Cuba and he was not afraid of (Fidel) Castro. He went to Santo Domingo (in the Dominican Republic) and he was not afraid of the dictatorship there. He spoke his heart."
Aponte remembers the conclave, or meeting of cardinals to elect a pope, in October 1978.
It was the second conclave that year, the Year of Three Popes, following the unexpected death of Pope John Paul I after a reign barely a month long.
Aponte was stunned to be heading back to the Vatican from Puerto Rico in the wake of the death of John Paul I, who had become a cardinal at the same time as Aponte.
"It was not in any way a source of joy to have to to go back to Rome, especially to elect a successor to John Paul I," who had shown "no sign of sickness" before his fatal heart attack.
Commentators at the time saw John Paul I as a compromise choice between a liberal and a conservative contender for pope, but Aponte insists that such considerations did not come into play when Karol Wojtyla of Poland was elected to replace him.
"In the conclaves, you don't think about liberals or conservatives," he says, noting that he attended the election of three popes. "You have... a great, great responsibility. You have to look for the man that the Church needs, and in that conclave when we elected him, really we did the right thing - we elected the man that the church needed at that time."
John Paul II's election remains the most emotional moment of Aponte's life, he says.
"We came to congratulate him, but when (Polish) Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski came to pay his respects, the pope stood up and went to him and embraced him," Aponte remembers. "That for us was a terrific moment. We all cried."
It had been more than 450 years since the Italian-dominated College of Cardinals had chosen a pope from outside Italy, and Wojtyla's nationality did play a role in their decision, Aponte says.
"The electors were taking a chance, but they made a wonderful choice. He had suffered a good deal, he had been a prisoner of the Communists," Aponte explains, adding that it helped his cause "that he came from a suffering country."
The choice of a Polish pope reverberated deeply into world history.
A year after he was elected pope, John Paul II visited his native land and told massive throngs of Poles, "Don't be afraid."
The country's Solidarity movement was founded soon after and grew into the most organized resistance to Communism in the Soviet bloc. When the Berlin Wall fell a decade after John Paul's pilgrimage to Poland, many credited him with helping to lay the groundwork for the rebirth of freedom in Eastern Europe.
But Karol Wojtyla's Polish heritage was far from the only factor in cardinals' 1978 decision.
Aponte had first met Wojtyla several years earlier in Philadelphia, at a Eucharistic congress also attended by Mother Teresa, among others.
"He always impressed me as a wonderful person," Aponte says, adding that by October 1978, "he was very well known, with reputation for being a good theologian. In a case like John Paul II you can see the Holy Spirit before he became pope."
Already a frequent flier before his enthronement, John Paul II went on to become the most traveled pope of all time, making 104 foreign trips. He's commonly thought to have been seen in person by more people than any other figure in history.
Aponte went with him on several occasions and was deputized for him on others, and that gave him even more respect for the pope, he says.
"One occasion, he delegated me to represent him on a mission to Mexico and I did so many activities that I don't know how he could do all these activities, especially someone who is not familiar with the food and the climate" of Mexico, Aponte says.
"I was with him in many places - Peru, Ecuador, the United States, Cuba, Haiti. He would never refuse to work. He would work late, he used to get up and come out to the window and greet the people."
His travels changed the world's image of what it meant to be pope, experts say.
"For the most part, popes had been viewed as old Italian guys in white sitting on some gilded baroque throne in Rome," says David Gibson, who has authored multiple books on the papacy.
"He broke out of the golden cage of the Vatican and its protocols and took the papacy to the world rather than expecting the world to follow the road to Rome," says Gibson. And people responded. When John Paul II celebrated mass at Grant Park in Chicago - a city no pope had visited before - in 1979, 1.2 million people showed up.
And his foreign trips served another purpose, Aponte contends.
"His travels made him know the church inside out and get familiar with the needs of the church so he would be able to respond to those needs," he says.
In fact, documents that John Paul II wrote for the millennium continue to guide the Catholic Church years after his death, the cardinal says.
In the final analysis, Aponte argues, John Paul II transcended even the religion which its followers call the Universal Church.
"Remember how successful he was against Communism, for example," Aponte says. "He was not only a pope for the Catholic Church, he was a pope for the world."
"I was in Rome for his funeral," Aponte recalls. "I saw the princes, the kings, the prime ministers who came to attend the funeral of a Catholic priest. That was something that made us think that the church still has a message for the world."
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