The conclave of 1978 began in August following the death of Pope Paul VI. Pope John Paul I was elected but died after only 33 days from a heart attack in the middle of the night. The Conclave met a second time on October 14th, 1978. Cardinal Karol won on the eighth ballot of the third day with 99 votes from the 111 electors (according to Italian press). This date coincided with Billy Graham's final day in Poland.
Taking the name John Paul II in tribute to his predecessor, he accepted the election saying:
"With obedience in faith to Christ, my Lord, and with trust in the Mother of Christ and the Church, in spite of great difficulties, I accept"
Pope John Paull II became the first non-Italian pope in 455 years (Since the Dutch Pope Adrian VI), the youngest Pope since Pope Pius IX (at 58) and was the 264th Pope. When Cardinals kneeled before him to take their vows and kiss his ring, he stopped Cardinal Wysznski from kneeling and embraced him in a hug.
Pope John Paul II's first trip was to the Dominican Republic, Mexico and the Bahamas where he reaffirmed for the Bishops that politics is an area of life where both the laity and the priesthood must be involved. His trip to Mexico assembled a crowd of millions (his later visit to the Philippines at Manila World Youth Day attracted the largest Papal gathering ever).
In June of 1979, Pope John Paul II flew to Poland and was the first Roman Catholic pontiff to visit a communist-ruled country. Greeted by thousands at the airport, he fell to his knees and kissed the ground. He drove into Warsaw in an open top car with crowds (some estimates at two million) shouting "Long Live Our Pope!". He entered Victory Square greeted by another 250,000 people and walked up to the altar with open arms.
"I have kissed the ground of Poland on which I grew up, the land from which, through the inscrutable design of providence, God called me to the chair of Peter in Rome, the land from which I am coming today as a pilgrim,"
The Papal trip not only lifted the national morale and pride, it also sparked the formation of the Polish Solidarity movement in 1980, bringing freedom and human rights to the Communist Country. The historian Angelo Codevilla writes in Strategic Influence: Public Diplomacy, Counter propaganda and Political Warfare of this trip:
The pope won that struggle by transcending politics. His was what Joseph Nye calls 'soft power' — the power of attraction and repulsion. He began with an enormous advantage, and exploited it to the utmost: He headed the one institution that stood for the polar opposite of the Communist way of life that the Polish people hated. He was a Pole, but beyond the regime's reach. By identifying with him, Poles would have the chance to cleanse themselves of the compromises they had to make to live under the regime. And so they came to him by the millions. They listened. He told them to be good, not to compromise themselves, to stick by one another, to be fearless, and that God is the only source of goodness, the only standard of conduct. 'Be not afraid,' he said. Millions shouted in response, 'We want God! We want God! We want God!' The regime cowered. Had the Pope chosen to turn his soft power into the hard variety, the regime might have been drowned in blood. Instead, the Pope simply led the Polish people to desert their rulers by affirming solidarity with one another. The Communists managed to hold on as despots a decade longer. But as political leaders, they were finished. Visiting his native Poland in 1979, Pope John Paul II struck what turned out to be a mortal blow to its Communist regime, to the Soviet Empire, [and] ultimately to Communism."
John Lewis Gaddis, a Cold War historian also writes:
When Pope John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw airport he began the process by which Communism in Poland—and ultimately elsewhere in Europe—would come to an end.
Lech Walesa, the founder of the Solidarity movement and first Post Communist President of Poland would later write:
"Before his pontificate, the world was divided into blocs. Nobody knew how to get rid of Communism. In Warsaw, in 1979, he simply said: 'Do not be afraid', and later prayed: 'Let your Spirit descend and change the image of the land … this land'."
Among his many, many trips overseas, here are just a few of the highlights:
Pope John Paul II was the first Pope to visit the White House (October 1979) where he was greeted by Jimmy Carter
The first reigning Pope to travel to the United Kingdom (1982) where he met with Queen Elizabeth IIand knelt in prayer with the Archbishop of Centerbury at Canterbury Cathedral
Visited Haiti (1983) and spoke Creole to Catholics at the airport
Offered Mass during the World Youth Day (January 15th, 1995) in Luneta Park, Manila Phillippines drawing the largest single gathering of Christians in history
Presided over nine World Youth Days Rome (1985, 2000), Buenos Aires (1987), Santiago de Compostela (1989), Czestochowa (1991), Denver (1993), Manila (1995), Paris (1997) and Toronto (2002)
He visited Jerusalem (March 2000) and was the first Pope in history to visit and pray at the Western Wall
He was the first modern Pope to visit Egypt (2000) and met with the Coptic Pope, Pope Shenouda III and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria
He was the very first Pope to visit and pray in an Islamic mosque in Damascus Syria (2001) On this same trip he visited the Umayyad Mosque (where John the Baptist is believed to be interred)
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan opened diplomatic relations with the Vatican (they had been previously suspended in 1867. This decision to suspend relations was mostly based on anti-Catholic sentiments growing in the United States that exploded with the conviction and hanging of Mary Surratt, a Catholic. Mary was tried and found guilty of taking part in a conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln). President Regan and Pope John Paul II became close friends especially due to their shared anti-communistic views and support for the liberation of Poland from the Communist party.