An insider remembers shocking election of Pope John Paul II
Cardinal Luis Aponte Martinez congratulates Pope John Paul II after his election on October 16, 1978.
April 28th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

An insider remembers shocking election of Pope John Paul II

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.

Aponte visits John Paul II on January 5, 2005, four months before the pope’s death.

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."

Aponte and John Paul II in April 2001, meeting with a delegation from Puerto Rico.

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."

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: Catholic Church • Pope Benedict XVI • Pope John Paul II • Uncategorized

soundoff (113 Responses)
  1. A Christian

    I cannot believe how the catholic church elects a pope. They believe that the pope is the vicar of Christ on earth and that he has the power to forgive and heal. God is the only one who can do that. Just because they elect someone to that office, does not give that person special powers. The pope is a church leader. Nothing else.

    April 28, 2011 at 7:57 am |
    • CatholicMom


      John 20:21 ‘He said therefore to them again: Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you.’ Jesus was SENT by the Father with Authority which is how He sent His Apostles.

      Jesus also said to His Apostles:

      "I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12-14)

      The Vicar of Christ does not mean the Pope or Priests [the Pope is a Priest] ARE Christ…no! It means that Jesus Christ continues His Priesthood through His priests. It is not the Pope or Priest who forgives or heals…it is Christ working through His priest.

      I am sorry you have been living with that misunderstanding. It would make anyone upset who thinks that way!

      April 28, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  2. Mary

    Only in the Catholic Religion can you hide pedophiles and made saint for it. What a cult.......................

    April 28, 2011 at 7:46 am |
  3. richunix

    Though I do not follow any religion, as it is archaic and has long since out lived its usefulness. But for Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) I do find that he was a very good man, trying to find what is best in human kind and he will be missed by many.

    “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

    April 28, 2011 at 7:46 am |
  4. Kyss My Ring

    What's wrong with this picture, (well, these pictures) ? (see above article embeds)
    Where are the WOMEN.?
    Why is tthis organization so h-o-m-o-centric ? I have nothing against heavy-set old fellas but, if gender is an evolutionary adaptation that allows forn the exchange of DNA, then why do the professional eunuchs seem to be so obcessed with it ?

    April 28, 2011 at 7:26 am |
  5. ManohMan

    So they are going to make the leader of the pedo factory (other wise known as the Catholic Church) a saint? Next thing you know they will give a President in charge of 3 wars the Nobel Peace Prize. Oh wait.

    April 28, 2011 at 7:15 am |
  6. MarciaMarciaMarcia

    The pope was on a rope smoking dope cause the pope couldn't cope with the hopes of the kids being crushed by the gropes of the pope's mopes.

    April 28, 2011 at 7:01 am |
  7. Chris

    He was a very influential and powerful pope, much better than the current. However, this embarrassing charade to make him a saint with some grotesque constructed pseudo miracles makes a mockery of the whole sainthood thing. Or maybe all the saints' wonders were fake and this is just standard procedure? I am disappointed. It is one thing to ask catholics to believe, and another to insult their intelligence.

    April 28, 2011 at 5:49 am |
    • Dorianmode

      Hey Chris,
      I don't see it that way. No one asks Ca's to believe. They choose to believe. What certain men in Italy tell Ca's they MUST believe to be accepted in their human organization, (which seems to me to be their right), is interesting, but the choice is still there. If people don't like the choice, then don't go there. Am not sure of the demographic connections, but to me it seems that members of advanced "scientific', secular societies are less and less interested in the above choice, and chose to integrate their observations about the universe they see around themselves in other terms. That may be good, and certainly some see it as not so good, but it IS increasingly the case. I don't think the clash of worldviews should be used to divide communities, but lots of people don't agree with that, all you have to do is turn on a TV set on a Sunday to see that.
      They get to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone, (which I DO understand raises all sorts of other issues), but life is too short.....I'll be watching THE wedding this weekend, not the beatification, (the music will be a LOT better). That is MY choice. Cheers.

      April 28, 2011 at 6:41 am |
    • CatholicMom

      Since I cannot be there in person, I will be watching the beatification because I am interested in everything about it…yes, the music, too! I could record the wedding as that could be entertaining at a later date…and then I can skip all the commercials.

      April 28, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  8. Inspector Clouseau

    If bishops have mandatory retirement ages, and cardinals can't vote after the age of 80, in papal elections, then why are these gentlemen, the bishops of Rome, not required also, to accept the fact of age related ability/disability, especially in an age when exceptionally long life, for the rich and those with excellent access to health care, is a fact of their lives.

    April 28, 2011 at 5:33 am |
  9. Buckminster Fullerene

    If he had been truly courageous, he would have resigned when he started drooling in public, and shown people that it's ok to accept help and assistance in old age and disability from one's friends and family, as Ronald Reagan did, and not to cling to power so desperately, scandalously.

    April 28, 2011 at 5:22 am |
    • JackoB

      ... You really don't know what you're talking about, do you?

      April 28, 2011 at 9:12 am |
    • Buckminster Fullerene

      At the same level of your reply...
      1. "I know you are, but what am I".
      2. "I am rubber, you are glue. What bounces off me, sticks to you ".
      Is that it ? Nothing specific ?

      April 28, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • CatholicMom

      Buckminster Fullerene,

      Pope John Paul II was gracious to allow us to see how to become humbled by illness and old age…he allowed us to see how to suffer with our cross and not to hide away as if it is something that cannot/should not occur in life.

      Yes, I know, many people are put away in nursing homes and forgotten there or others feel obligated to care for them at home and feel their lives are put on hold while they attend the sick and aging in their families. I am grateful that we were able to see the Pope cared for by his family [he accepted it graciously]. He belongs to the same family that many of us do...

      The message is: love one another even unto death. That is, love until you leave this earth…that is what Pope John Paul II did. [‘Until’ does not imply that he stopped loving after his earthly life…]

      April 28, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • JackoB

      I hope you off yourself at the first sign of a head cold. I really don't like looking at sick people.

      April 28, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • CatholicMom

      The thing is this: we often look at someone who has a beautiful body, no illnesses for the eye to view but they have a sick mind, JackoB...

      April 28, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • Orlando

      wow! what a comment! You're really smart! Wow! I bet you still have some brain cell... No way! Wow!

      April 29, 2011 at 1:20 am |
  10. Shut The Front Door

    Why another article about him ? Because his "beatification" is this weekend.
    What exactly does "beatification" mean ? An assertion that the person in question is in heaven. It is only one of a numbner of steps in the canonization process, and the long, developing, changing process by which this is done, and by whom this is and was done, is described in the article on canonization by Wikipedia. The fact that it changed so much in the past implies that it will change much in the future.
    From where is the political pressure to do this so fast for JP2 coming from, and why is Rome responding to it ? Interesting questions.

    April 28, 2011 at 5:13 am |
  11. doctore0

    Pope for the world; That old nut-case hahaha

    April 28, 2011 at 4:51 am |
  12. Chayongsak

    Attended the outdoor mass at the Bangkok's national stadium during the Pope' State visit to Thailand over 20 years ago. Saw on TV how the Queen of Thailand paid the most gracious respect to his Holiness. I am sure those 100,000+ people who attended that outdoor mass and those who followed coverage of his visit to Thailand on TV would still remember how tears of joy poured just haivng a glimpse of this great Pope.

    April 28, 2011 at 4:46 am |
  13. Reality Check

    He brought the Catholic Church to the people of the world, but due to his handling of things, the world knows the church as Pedophiles-R-Us. He had the power to punish the pedophiles and let his action make it clear that there is no place in the Church for them. Yet he chose to protect the pedophiles from punishment in the selfish hope that no one will find out about their crimes, re-victimizing their victims in the process.

    In the end, he became complicit in their crimes and an enabler for their sins. Rather than admitting that and being ashamed, the church is moving full steam ahead to canonize him. I guess nothing has really changed.

    April 28, 2011 at 4:26 am |
  14. rene

    during his visit to the philippines, my wife and i was part of a team from CFC that handled and managed the Tent City in Intramuros to house and feed foreign delegations for at least a week. We were so busy we could not even find the time to see him as he passed by Intramuros. That we served and loved him was enough consolation. Totus Tuus indeed!

    April 28, 2011 at 3:58 am |
  15. Gary

    I remember this, how about the first pope? http://www.parkplace.biz

    April 28, 2011 at 3:52 am |
  16. Jason

    A surprisingly positive story about the Catholic Church on CNN. Thanks!

    April 28, 2011 at 3:40 am |
  17. Joel

    John Paul II, We Love You! From the Philippines!

    April 28, 2011 at 3:28 am |
  18. Oladele

    Attending a Catholic secondary school in Nigeria afforded me the opportunity to know so well about Pope John Paul II. I Love The Man. May His Gentle Soul Rest In Perfect Peace.

    April 28, 2011 at 3:09 am |
  19. fonseka

    Very charming person, a person you feel like listening to...............

    April 28, 2011 at 3:04 am |
  20. Jason

    I loved this man and continue to love this man. Blessed John Paul II I love you.

    April 28, 2011 at 2:59 am |
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