Being Polish does for John Paul II what the gentle smile of Giotto did for John Paul I. It asserts across the pomp of te papacy two things all of us can grasp: change and personality.

But the cardinal from Krakow became pope by a process of elimination. His true qualities lie as much in what he is not as what he is. The innovating stamp of his person is set in the tradition of his church.

To be sure, John Paul II is not a restoration pope, determined to undo the liturgical reforms worked by the Second Vatican Council a decade ago. That purpose was imputed to Cardinal Siri of Genoa who, according to some Vatican officials, was knocked from the running at the start of the latest conclave.

In contrast, John Paul II asserted his fidelity to the council both in assumping the name of the two popes responsible for its work and in his first message to the church and the world. "Above all," he said, "we want to insist on the constant importance of the Second Vatican Council . . . a'milestone in the 2,000-year history of our church."

Neither is the new pope a man of the curia, the bureaucratic arm of strongly centralzed papal authority in administrative matters. The curia candidate was Cardinal Benelli of Florence who, Vatican sources claim, was also eliminated in the early balloting.

John Paul II, by his modesty (notably, his invitation to be corrected if he makes a mistake speaking Italian) and by his speech to the cardinals, took careful distance from the iron executive. He had previously been a member of the Synod of Bishops appointed by Paul VI to act as adviser to the pope. In his first message as pope, he mentioned the synod and urged "a deeper reflection on the implications of collegiality."

Most important of all, John Paul II is not a "third world" pope, put over by the votes of the more radical prelates from Latin AMerica. He shows no sign of partiality to their view of the church as the vessed of discontented revolutionary masses. Still less of their tolerance for birth control, easier divorce and such innovations as married clergy.

On the contrary, John Paul II is a theologian, not a social worker. In his first message he emphasized that "one aspect above all others that calls for the closest attention is ecclesiology" (the theology of the church).

In dogmatic matters, he is known as a stickler for such traditions as priestly celibacy. He was a member of the population commission under Paul VI, which produced an encyclical that took an uncompromising line on birth-control measures.

"Fidelity," he said in his first message, "demands adherence to the teaching of Peter, especially in the field of doctrine . . . In our age there appear here and there dangers to certain truths of the Catholic faith. Fidelity . . . means respect for the liturgical norms issued by church authorities."

His backing in the conclave, according to officials here, came from the prelates of the North. The cardinals of the United States and Canada, of France, Germany and Austria took the initiative for John Paul II.

What the northern bishops and the new pope have in common is work at the frontiers of their faith. Protestantism and modernism are the powers that be in the industrialized countries of the north. The Catholic church endured the Reformation in Britain, Jansenism in France and the Kulturkampf in Germany not be compromise and self-dilution. It survived by suffering and standing its ground.

Even more so in Poland, that Christ among nations. There, as in Ireland, the church provided the rallying point for a submerged nationality. It withstood the pressures of the Greek Orthodox faith from the East and the Protestant creed from the West. It suffered, indeed the pope himself suffered, the night of the Nazi occupation and the takeover by the communists.

So the selection of Pope John Paul II is an act of resurgence. The Catholic church now hardens its faith and widens its gaze, and a young, strong pope asks "what road humanity will take as it approaches the year 2000."