He’s now the head of the most powerful department at the Vatican but the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal William Levada, was just a young priest when John Paul II was elected Pope.
“I have to confess that I had really never heard of him before. I wasn't following the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the world. And, I remember standing in the piazza in the evening that the white smoke went up, and that we waited for the curtains to open and for the announcement to be made.”
As he stood waiting along with the rest of the world, Father Levada spoke with Monsignor Albert Bovone – who later became Cardinal Bovone, Prefect for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
“So, I went over and we had a chat while we were waiting for the announcement. And when the announcement was made, well, I didn't recognize the name. So, I asked him who it was, what was the name? And he said, ‘Wojtyla.’ And I said, ‘who's that?’ He said, ‘a Polish fellow’.”
The nationality was important to many Italians. At the time, Italy was a nation suffering from several body-blows to its national confidence. Within the span of a year, two Italian Popes had died and the country’s prime minister had been kidnapped and killed by the Marxist terror group, the Red Brigades.
“It was a very active political moment and he (Msgr. Bovone) expressed a sense of, well, a sigh of ‘how could this happen for Italy?’” At such a difficult time, “now the Pope has been taken away from Italy!”
Cardinal Levada says that over the past 32 years the Italian people have become hugely accepting of non-Italian Popes, beginning that night in 1978.
“It was an electrifying moment for us all in the Church, I think everywhere in the Church because it was so unexpected.”
And so Pope John Paul II set about learning how the Vatican works.
“Shortly after his election, he came around, he had never been in the Roman Curia and he wanted to see his departments and so he came to visit every person who worked. He came into our offices and asked me what I was working on. I thought, ‘this is remarkable.’ I would have never have expected to have this opportunity. But, he was a very engaging person.”
Even now Cardinal Levada says he’s still in daily contact with Pope John Paul through the power of prayer.
“I pray to him to sustain me in this work that I'm called to do here as prefect of our congregation and to pray for the Church, for my brother bishops throughout the entire world that he knows so well. To show them how to be a bishop and as the bishop of Rome, the Pope, we can really be confident of his intercession.”