1978 as Seen Via Three American Witnesses

ANALYSIS: A Look Back at Papal History 40 Years Later

Kneeling women are seen in this Aug. 13, 1978, file photo as they pray in front of the tomb of Pope Paul VI underneath St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.
Kneeling women are seen in this Aug. 13, 1978, file photo as they pray in front of the tomb of Pope Paul VI underneath St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. (photo: AP photo/Giulio Broglio)

Aug. 6, 1978, Pope Blessed Paul VI died after a 15-year papacy that included issuing Humanae Vitae and all that came with it. His successor, Pope John Paul I (Cardinal Albino Luciani), was quickly elected — and then died Sept. 28, after only 33 days as pope.

The conclave following his death would end with the election of one of the most influential and important popes in the history of the Church, Pope St. John Paul II. As a result, 1978 thus became known as the “Year of Three Popes.”

There have been other brief papacies in the Church’s history. In 1590, Pope Urban VIII reigned for only 13 days; Boniface VI reigned for only 16 days in 896; Celestine IV reigned for just 17 days in 1241.

John Paul I’s 33 days constitutes only the 11th-shortest papacy in history. Because of these (and other) short papacies, there have been around a dozen “years of three popes,” and even one year of four popes (1276, in which Blessed Gregory X, elected after a three-year conclave, Blessed Innocent V, Adrian V and John XXI all reigned).

The two conclaves of 1978 elected men who were, in some ways, quite different from each other and quite different from their immediate predecessor.

While Paul VI was famously soft-spoken, John Paul I “was a radiant personality,” George Weigel — prolific commentator on matters of Church and current affairs and author of the standard of all papal biographies, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II — told the Register. “But the world media gets tired of radiant personalities after a while. John Paul II held the world’s attention for over 25 years because he combined style with real substance.”

In important ways, the trio had much in common. “They were all men of deep faith,” said Weigel. “That each had a distinct personality is hardly surprising, but we might say that John Paul II had a personality that fit a newly globalized papacy especially well.”

The first conclave was a “walkover” for Cardinal Albino Luciani, according to Weigel. While it is likely that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla got some votes in that August 1978 conclave, it was probably not many. (Read background here.)

“John Paul I’s sudden death, which was a real shock for the cardinals, certainly helped to create the human and psychological conditions for the possibility of the second conclave of 1978 thinking outside the box and considering a non-Italian pope,” Weigel said. “And once they had crossed that bridge, Wojtyla was the obvious man, his relative youth notwithstanding.”

The electors already knew Cardinal Wojtyla quite well, even though the wider Church may not have known him. Upon his election, when the cardinal protodeacon, Cardinal Pericle Felice, announced the Latin version of the new pope’s first name (“Carolum”), not many listeners’ minds went to Wojtyla. Some thought of Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri, the 84-year-old dean of the College of Cardinals; others were simply perplexed. But the electors knew him.

“He was from a vibrant Church that had showed its ability to thrive under adverse circumstances, and he radiated strength and conviction,” said Weigel.

The conclaves of 1978 were experienced in a unique way by Russell Shaw, the Catholic writer and commentator who has produced dozens of books and hundreds of articles over the last several decades. He served as the press secretary for the American cardinals involved in the conclaves, a spectacularly intimate view of the proceedings.

Having been with the American delegation to every synod in Rome up to that point since 1971, Shaw was seen as someone who could assist the cardinals in their work. “There was simply an awareness that the American cardinals would be under a lot of pressure from the media, and they would need someone as a buffer to facilitate relationships with journalists,” he told the Register.

“I remember it was an emotionally very intense period for me and everyone else who was involved,” Shaw recalled. “Whatever anybody made of it, we all felt that something extremely important and unusual was taking place.”

As a member of the cardinals’ staff during the conclaves, Shaw lived with them, shared meals with them, observed them and heard their conversations.

“From my peculiar perspective, there was an enormous difference between the two conclaves, between the emotional tone of them,” he said. Being the first conclave in a decade and a half, most of the cardinals — indeed, all of the U.S. cardinals — had been elevated to the cardinalate by Pope Paul VI, and thus had never been part of a conclave. “During the first conclave, the atmosphere was one of excitement, tension, anticipation, lots of question marks — but overall a sense of high drama.”

“At the second conclave, the emotional tone was one of grim determination to get the job done,” Shaw said. “It was a job that had not been anticipated and, in a sense, not welcomed.”

According to Shaw, when the cardinals returned to Rome for the second conclave, there was a “certain prayerful hopefulness that this time they wouldn’t have to do the same job over again in too short a period.”

This was certainly a motivator in the deliberations during the October conclave that ultimately elected Cardinal Wojtyla: a motivation Shaw describes as a “strong desire to choose a pope who would be a man in good health!”

Robert Royal was working on a doctorate in Italian literature during that eventful summer and fall of 1978. Living in Florence, he remembers going to Rome for Easter Sunday Mass with Paul VI and marveling at the Eternal City. After Paul VI’s death, “We went down to see [him] lying in state,” Royal recalled. “For all the turmoil of his papacy, I’ve always had a certain respect for him.”

John Paul I was elected while Royal was in Florence, and there was a sense that “something fresh was happening.”

“The Church had not entirely recovered from the turmoil of the post-Conciliar years,” he said, “but it did not feel as agitated as it does, even today. [The political situation in] Italy certainly felt more turbulent in those days than the Church did.”

By the time John Paul I died, Royal had returned to America and was teaching undergraduates at Brown University.

“I remember talking with students about him and how I felt close to him because he’d been elected while we were there,” Royal said. “The election of a Polish successor was another breath of fresh air and much unexpected, since the Italians still seemed to have a lock on the papacy.”

From the start, Royal remembers being taken by the Polish pope, who honored his three immediate predecessors in the selection of his papal name.  

“He quickly won all of us over,” Royal said of John Paul II. “He was vigorous, articulate, something very different from the Italian line. There’s an old story that he had a Vatican swimming pool refurbished. The usual suspects objected at the expense. He replied that it was less expensive than another conclave. He knew who he was.”

Register correspondent Paul Senz writes from Portland, Oregon.

Oscar Wergeland, “Service in a German Village Church,” ca. 1880

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