The results of the second election to the Papacy in October 1978 – following the untimely death of Albino Luciano, Pope John Paul I, were a surprise to many. For the first time in over 450 years a non-Italian cardinal was elected Pope.
Basil, Cardinal Hume, who followed the immediate precedent and took the regnal name John Paul II, proved a well liked and successful Pope. He was able to negotiate a partial resolution to the Northern Irish question – despite the attempt by extremists on his life. Who can forget the image of him with that celebrated Orangeman, Ian Paisley? As to what part he played in the Parliamentary reforms that led to the election in 1997 of the first Catholic Prime Minister, we will have to wait until the papers have been released under the 30-year rule.
He appointed Karol Wojtyla Cardinal of Krakow as his special envoy in Eastern Europe – which does lend some weight to the claims that the latter was a strong candidate for the Papacy and this was a recompense. The appointment was understandably popular in Poland, and Wojtyla proved a shrewd negotiator, fully living up to his remit. The Vatican has been regularly used as a neutral negotiator in dispute resolution, internationally or otherwise – and the Cardinal played a key role in the discussions between the Polish Communist Party leadership and the leading figures of the Solidarity trade union, among other discussions. While the Pope was prepared to be somewhat more flexible in his stance than Wojtyla – partly arising from their different backgrounds – the latter’s firmness of opinion was undoubtedly pivotal in his negotiations, often behind the scenes, in Eastern Europe, contributing in some measure to the peaceful transition away from Communist leadership in a number of states. Pope and Cardinal played a certain part – mostly undisclosed to the outside world – in the discussions that occurred during the last stages of the Soviet Union.