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How St. John Paul II began his papacy, 40 years ago

Pope John Paul II (Getty Images)

St. John Paul II used the occasion of his first homily as pope to offer a fervent prayer that God would make him, first and foremost, a servant.

The former Cardinal Karol Wojtyla delivered the first homily of his 26-year pontificate before a packed assembly in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, Oct. 22, 1978— 40 years ago this week.

His election was a few days before, on Oct. 16.

John Paul II began his homily by reaffirming the words that had once been uttered by the apostle Peter in the presence of Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

“Yes, Brothers and sons and daughters, these words first of all,” the newly-elected pope said. “He who is infinite, inscrutable, ineffable, has come close to us in Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary in the stable at Bethlehem.”

The pope exhorted those seeking God, those who already believe, and those struggling with doubt to pay attention to Peter’s profession of faith in Jesus. Peter’s faith and obedience to a higher calling led him to leave his simple way of life as a fisherman and journey to Rome.

“What else but obedience to the inspiration received from the Lord guided him and brought him to this city, the heart of the Empire?” the pope said. “Perhaps the fisherman of Galilee did not want to come here. Perhaps he would have preferred to stay there, on the shores of the Lake of Genesareth, with his boat and his nets. But guided by the Lord, obedient to his inspiration, he came here!”

“Son of Poland”

On the day he began his new mission as Bishop of Rome, Pope John Paul admitted he was “a bishop full of trepidation, conscious of his unworthiness.”

As a self-proclaimed “son of Poland,” John Paul was the first non-Italian pope in more than 400 years. In this moment, as he took over the See of Peter, he proclaimed that the unbroken tradition of the papacy had made him a Roman, too.

“Inscrutable is the design of Divine Providence!” he said. “How could one not tremble before the greatness of this call and before the universal mission of this See of Rome!”

To his fellow Polish Bishops and to the many Polish pilgrims present, John Paul II said:

“Everything that I could say would fade into insignificance compared with what my heart feels, and your hearts feel, at this moment. So let us leave aside words. Let there remain just great silence before God, the silence that becomes prayer…Remember me today and always in your prayers!”

Humility and service

John Paul II chose not to wear a papal tiara, or crown; the last pope to be crowned was Paul VI in 1963. He said he didn’t want to return to “an object considered, wrongly, to be a symbol of the temporal power of the Popes,” but rather to immerse himself in “humble and devout meditation on the mystery of the supreme power of Christ himself.”

The “power” exercised by the popes is service, John Paul II said; service to help all the people of God share in the mission of Jesus as Priest, Prophet, and King. This power expressed itself in “charity and truth” rather than in “the language of force.”

“Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power,” the saint said. “Help the Pope and all those who wish to serve Christ and with Christ’s power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind.”

“Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid.”

Though his homily was in Italian, John Paul II— a famous polyglot— also offered greetings to pilgrims in French, English,German, Spanish, Portuguese, Czechoslovakian, Russian, Ukrainian and Lithuanian, asking all of them for prayers.