THERE COULD SCARCELY be a more interesting, indeed, a more provocative, choice of a new pope - a choice fascinating even to those to whom ordinarily the papacy is a parochial affair - than Karol Cardinal Wojtyla of Krakow. In a gesture of respect to his predecessor, who died after only 34 days in office, he at once took the name John Paul II. What makes his selection the occasion it is, of course, is that he is not only the first non-Italian to ascend to the papacy since the 16th century but also the first Pole and the first pope to come from a country under communist rule. The election of a new pope has long since been an internationally followed event in the affairs of the church. Unavoidably, the election of this one becomes a major secular event as well.

It is not just custom and a stacking of the college of cardinals that have ensured such a long succession of Italian popes, and not just the theological tradition that the pope is the bishop of Rome with a special responsibility for the Italian faithful. The Italian connection has also reflected a purposeful intent to keep the papacy at some remove from the competition among the world powers of the successive centuries. The claimed university of the church has been contradicted by an unbroken succession of Italian popes over four centuries.

Here is the drama of the new pope. Ascension of a Polish cardinal thrusts the papacy directly into the intense, complex environment of the ongoing ideological and political competition between East and West. Especially since Paul VI, the church has been reaching out actively to Catholics living under communist rule, and necessarily seeking out new terms of association with the local regimes. This effort has preoccupied John Paul II in Poland. He can speak to it with a special authenticity. It will almost surely inform his approach to the relationship of Catholics and communists during his papacy - in both halves of Europe.

As the short reign of the first John Paul made joyously clear, a pope in the television age is in a position to project features of his own spirit and personality instantly to millions of people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Thus does a pope have the opportunity to affect the whole international moral climate. Here is the symbolism of John Paul II. He comes to his office as one who has sustained personal belief under austere public circumstances. He is as bold a choice as his predecessor and perhaps not entirely different from him.