Cover Story

The end of a beginning

Angela Ferrante October 9 1978
Cover Story

The end of a beginning

Angela Ferrante October 9 1978

The end of a beginning

Cover Story

Angela Ferrante

To many Roman Catholics it seemed like a sudden, awesome sign: the “little wren” had perished. Just when their humble, beloved new pontiff had started to calm the turbulent forces of change within the church with the warmth of his smile, Pope John Paul I was dead of a heart attack. The reign of the populist Pope, the pastoral man chosen so quickly and almost unanimously to be the symbol of unity in a divided house, lasted a bare 34 days, the shortest in 400 years.

Typically, the last words of the diminutive, frail former patriarch of Venice were of concern for others. He had just heard of the murder of a young Communist youth in Rome at the hands of right-wing thugs. Weighed down by this further proof of the growing divisions in his country—which troubled him almost as much as those within his church—he said sadly: “Even the young people kill each other.” Then, taking with him a book of 15th-century meditations, he went to bed and died, peacefully, the reading light left on. His private secretary, Father John Magee,

found him in the morning. Again bereft of leadership, the world’s 700 million Catholics might well wonder along with Carlo Confalonieri, the 85-year-old dean of the College of Cardinals, at the “inscrutable designs of the Lord.”

Now, once again, the gold ring of the Fisherman, the official papal seal, must be smashed with a hammer and chisel. Once again, the body of the pontiff lay in state beneath the fresco of angels in the Vatican’s Clementine Hall, wearing a white robe and a red chasuble. The 65year-old pontiff, whose ruddy face, aglow behind steel-rimmed glasses, so swiftly endeared itself to his followers, would be buried in the grottoes beneath St. Peter’s Basilica close to Pope Paul VI whom he so recently succeeded. And once again, the 112 cardinals, most of them elderly and still exhausted from the last conclave a little more than a month ago, are flocking to Rome to begin on Oct. 14 to choose a successor—the 264th Pope—to fill the spiritual vacuum. That the vacuum is great even after so short a papacy was attested repeatedly by mourners round the world. As one tearful woman told television viewers: “We needed someone to

bring us together again. And now he’s been taken away. Why?”

While Vaticanologists in Rome dismissed the notion that the untimely death amounted to a message to the church, cardinals and bishops were already interpreting what that message might mean according to their own hopes and visions. And there were already signs that the polarization of conservatives and progressives—which the choice of Albino Luciani had seemed to moderate, albeit briefly—might be renewed. Such progressives as Franz Cardinal Koenig of Vienna who have fought for so long to decentralize the church’s structure blamed John Paul’s death on the archaic system that makes the Pope at times an unwilling dictator and a virtual prisoner in the 10,000-room Vatican, overwhelmed by the 2,000-strong curia, the church bureaucracy. The Pope, as the leader of one of the wealthiest “countries,” with an extended diplomatic corps, puts in gruelling 16hour days of audiences and prayers tending to the temporal and spiritual needs of a vast citizenry. Said Koenig: “The sudden death of the Pope must be a warning of the mental and physical overburdening of the Pope and must point to the necessity of sharing the tasks.”

But the sharing of papal power and burdens with the world’s bishops, one of the main recommendations of the ecumenical council of Vatican II in the early 1960s, has been stoutly opposed by traditionalists who see it as an erosion of church purity. Those who resented the aggiornamento, the renewal started by Pope John XXIII and continued by Pope Paul—whose names the latest Pope had inherited along with their mission to reform “at a moderate pace of change”—may find they have another opportunity to resist. As Spain’s Vincente Cardinal Enrique Taracon put it: “This will be an ordeal for the church.” At the very least, says Toronto’s Archibishop Emmett Carter: “The lesson God is teaching us is that no one is indispensable. It’s the community of the church that is important.”

Nonetheless the loss of Pope John Paul, a true “Papa,” left many Catholics, among them Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, “feeling like orphans.” The son of a socialist bricklayer, who like many modest Italians had to trek to Switzerland each year to support his family, Albino Luciani grew up in a tiny, airy village in the Dolomite Alps. Graduating in dogmatics at the Gregorian University in Rome, he was ordained at 23 but returned to his home in the Veneto region to teach religion in a vocational school. His rise through sheer good parochial work—he was named bishop of Vittorio Veneto in 1958, promoted to patriarch in 1969 and cardinal in 1973—set him apart from most of the papal contenders who had earned their scarlet hats mastering the intricate intrigues of the curia or papal diplomacy abroad. Albino had never been outside Italy until he took a trip to Brazil last year. Instead he won renown as the “bicycle cardinal” who tucked his large gold cross in his pocket as he made his parish rounds.

Chosen in what seemed to be an inspired moment by the cardinals to fill the spiritual hunger for a man of the masses, a new style “Pope priest,” his appeal lay mainly in his ingenuous rapport with people that would turn the cold, formal, papal audiences Pope Paul was known for into joking sessions. While Paul’s austere approach to church reform was intellectual, John Paul possessed “a very practical kind of intelligence” (his description of the way Jesus taught). Even as Pope, he refused the usual pomp of the enthronement ceremony and set aside the crown, the triple tiara. That seemed only fitting for a man who called the poor “the true treasures of the church” and had, as patriarch, advised selling off church valuables to help the needy. But probably what endeared him most was a series of monthly letters he wrote while in Venice to such famous, long-dead authors and fictional characters as Pinocchio, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. To the American writer, Twain, he offered what was perhaps the best selfdescription: “I am one of the poor wrens on the lowest bough of the ecclesiastical tree who only squeak, seeking to offer some small thought regarding the great themes.”

Catholics will never know, ultimately, how he would have shaped those themes. He had no time to write ecclesiastical letters or change church struc-

ture. His only formal comment on a touchy issue facing the church—divorce—came two weeks ago, when he told a group of U.S. bishops that “the indissolubility of Christian marriage is important. We must proclaim it faithfully as part of God’s word.” In time, no doubt, his basically conservative stance on divorce (he once shut down a Catholic students’ union in Venice because the group had advocated it), workerpriests, women priests, involvement of the church in the class struggles of poor countries and, the most controversial of all, the use of artificial contraceptives might have alienated those who want to bring the church into line with modern reality.

But the Pope had already demonstrated his ability to be flexible. Although with great difficulty, he had finally accepted the decree of Vatican II that Roman Catholicism was no longer the only “true” religion. “I convinced myself we were wrong,” he said quite simply. He did, in fact, vote for the Pill originally, as a member of the papal commission on birth control, and fell into line only when Pope Paul made it clear he would not follow its advice.

Perhaps his greatest contribution was to point the way for the kind of leader needed by the world’s Catholics. His election had been wrestled from the curia’s grip and, seeing his extraordinary success in so brief a time, the cardinals are unlikely to go back to a Pope who is the product of the bureaucracy. Although it is perilous to speculate, as the surprise choice of the completely unknown Luciani showed, it is possible the cardinals will consider first a couple of pastoral candidates who came close to winning in the last conclave. As one Canadian priest put it: “It will be just as if one of the guys had withdrawn.”

These would include: Corrado Cardi-

nal Ursi, the 70-year-old archbishop of Naples, known as a middle-of-the-road moderate; Giuseppe Cardinal Siri, the conservative 72-year-old archibishop of Genoa; and Salvatore Cardinal Pappalardo, 60, of Palermo.

It would be wrong to underestimate, however, the power of the front-runners from the last conclave: the 68-yearold Sergio Pignedoli and Sebastiano Baggio, 65. While the cardinals usually choose men over 60, fearing an overly long reign, the exhaustion which so evidently proved too much for Pope John Paul may lead to the choice of a younger man this time. If so, 57-year-old Giov-

anni Cardinal Benelli, archbishop of Florence and Pope Paul’s right-hand man, could come into the reckoning. He was told last August: “Not this time, you’re still too young. Perhaps next time.” But Benelli is known primarily as a pope-maker, rather than a candidate, and ironically he was the one to put forward Luciani’s name last month.

If, as some are suggesting, the idea of a non-Italian as Pope for the first time in centuries seems more acceptable this time, the front-runner being touted is British cardinal George Basil Hume. At 55, however, he is likely to be considered too radical—he favors ordination of married men for instance—although the sight of him jogging around the Vatican might be thought to make the risk worthwhile. The only Canadian to have even a slight chance is George Flahiff, Archbishop of Winnipeg. The 72-yearold former native of Paris, Ontario, is a talented negotiator and independent thinker who supported the reforms of Vatican II and believes that even today the church has many traditional elements that are meaningless.

As the cardinals go through the motions of convening daily to run the church—under the same “acting Pope,” Jean Cardinal Villot—there is a sense of sad repetition. When Pope Paul died, his long illness cushioned the shock, and after a 15-year reign cardinals could not help but feel a tinge of excitement as many, for the first time, had an opportunity to decide the succession. Now there is some feeling of fatigue. But the overriding reaction still is of wonderment. One of Pope John Paul’s favorite authors, William Shakespeare, was closest to the perfect epitaph. “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” said Hamlet to Horatio. “Let be.” For sparrow read wren.