In the summer of 1976 Karol Wojtyla, the archbishop of Kraków, spent six weeks traveling in North America. He gave a lecture at Harvard, addressed a crowd of 40,000 people during an event in Philadelphia (Mother Teresa was the headliner), and went west with the city's archbishop, Cardinal John Krol, a son of Polish immigrants, to meet American Catholics of Polish descent. He celebrated masses, attended testimonial dinners, and hashed out theology with seminarians. He declined an invitation to the White House, lest the meeting be seen as an endorsement of Gerald Ford's bid to retain the presidency; he arrived three hours late for a meeting at the archbishop's residence in Boston, having spent the morning floating on a raft on a lake in Vermont. The visit, his second, was by all accounts a typical trip by a foreign prelate, and even his devoutest biographers depict it as one of no great consequence.
Two years later Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope. From the moment his name was announced to the crowd awaiting word outside the Sistine Chapel, the story of his election was the story of how unlikely a Pope he was: the first non-Italian in 455 years, a Pole from behind the Iron Curtain of atheistic communism. Yet Wojtyla was no stranger in Vatican City. As his biographer George Weigel observes, he was "one of the most widely respected senior leaders in Roman Catholicism": a bishop at age thirty-eight and a cardinal at forty-seven, an active participant in the Second Vatican Council, and a favorite of Paul VI, who in 1976 chose him to lead the papal household's Lenten retreat. He was as familiar in Vatican City as he was obscure in Los Angeles.