It was August 1978 and the crowds were thick in St. Peter’s Square, expectant and hopeful for the inauguration of their new pope, John Paul I. But in a startling turn of events, the same crowds found their way back to St. Peter’s a mere six weeks later due to the sudden death of their newly appointed pope.
Amidst confusion, mourning, and skepticism, Pope John Paul II accepted the papal responsibility. To make matters worse for the locals, he was the first non-Italian pope since the Dutchman, Adrian VI, who was elected in 1522. Pope John Paul II’s appointment wasn’t expected. He wasn’t anticipated. If anything, the church was skeptical, and the world was watching.
But Pope John Paul II did something unprecedented for the papacy: He addressed the crowd directly. He smiled. He spoke the crowd’s native tongue of Italian, one of twelve languages in which he was fluent. He acknowledged the potential mistakes he might make with the spectators’ language and invited them to correct him when he did. Eric Metaxas, author of 7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness, describes the scene: “His openness, vulnerability, and humor drew laughter and applause from the crowd. By the time the extemporaneous speech drew to a close, a remarkable thing had happened: the crowd that was surprised and confused before was now wholehearted on John Paul II’s side.”
When John Paul II stepped up that day to assume his new responsibility of leadership, he became real. He became relatable. He displayed how an extraordinary leader comprehends and employs the relational dimension of leadership. He led from his heart. Metaxas explains, “Part of the greatness of this man was his extraordinary ability to communicate humbly and humorously and clearly. There can be no other word for it: He was charming. Like a great politician but without a hint of guile, he managed to connect with his audiences in a way that delighted them.”1