I have covered far happier times for the Vatican. I reported on John Paul II’s pilgrimage through his native Poland some three decades ago, and I have been thinking about this while watching the Catholic Church’s 115 cardinal electors pray for divine inspiration on this historic day in Rome’s Sistine Chapel.

The cardinals will need every ounce of God’s help to determine who among them has the leadership and managerial wherewithal to both fix their scandal-ridden church and inspire a needy world. They can take some solace from the 1978 papal conclave held after John Paul I’s sudden death following just 33 days in office.

Electors then took eight ballots and two days to select Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, then the archbishop of Krakow, as the first non-Italian pope since 1523 and a man who over time would become one of the great leaders of the 20th century. John Paul II was beatified in 2011, in no small part for the role he played in liberating his homeland and ending Communist rule over most of Eastern Europe.

No elector then could have known the chain of events he had set in motion. Consider, I filed the dispatch below to my editors at the Wall Street Journal from Czestochowa, Poland, where the pope had come to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the icon of the Black Madonna. The Black Madonna had been acclaimed for everything from stopping Swedish invaders to healing the disabled, and John Paul II credited her with saving his life after he took an assassin’s bullet two years earlier. I wrote:

It was Polish Woodstock staged around religion instead of rock music.

Masses of young people with backpacks and blankets started gathering two days before their Polish pope would arrive. By the time he climbed the grand altar atop the Jasna Gora Monastery’s majestic hill top, they easily numbered a million and stretched for nearly a mile at his feet … The crowd greeting him here was packed so tight that even crossing oneself at mention of the Trinity proved awkward.