‘Year of Three Popes’: Paul VI’s Death 40 Years Ago Heralded Whirlwind in Church

Events culminated with the election of the first non-Italian pope in 462 years.

From the Register archives, this drawing of the likenesses of Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II accompanied a column by Father Robert J. Fox in the Oct. 29, 1978, edition of the newspaper.
From the Register archives, this drawing of the likenesses of Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II accompanied a column by Father Robert J. Fox in the Oct. 29, 1978, edition of the newspaper. (photo: Register Files)

Several hundred thousand people gathered in St. Peter’s Square Aug. 13, 1978, to say farewell to Pope Paul VI, who had died at the age of 80 a week before at the papal retreat of Castel Gandolfo.

The world’s media had descended on Rome for the first papal funeral in 15 years, with special coverage of the farewell to Pope Paul and a sense of high drama for the election of his successor. During CBS’ live coverage of the funeral, veteran newsman Harry Reasoner interviewed Archbishop Fulton Sheen. When asked about the end of Paul’s pontificate, the great archbishop replied, “In the Old Testament, Moses was told to strike a rock and water would come from it. Well, that’s like the papacy. There’s something solid about it, stable, fixed. But then there are waters that flow.”

The death of Paul was the first moment in what was a historic and surprising three months, part of what came to be called the “Year of Three Popes.” It witnessed the death of two of them and two papal conclaves.

After the death of Paul, the papacy was blessed with the brief flash of the “Smiling Pope,” Albino Luciani as John Paul I, who reigned only 33 days, and then renewed by the colossus contribution of Pope St. John Paul II, who reigned 27 years and was the first non-Italian pontiff since 1523.

A year of three popes was not completely unprecedented. There had been a dozen times in papal history that the Church had been governed by three popes in a year and even a year of four popes, in 1276. The last time there were three popes in a year was 1605.

But 1978’s year of the triple pontificates was the first in the modern media age.

Pope Paul’s death was not entirely unexpected. His health had been deteriorating over the previous months, made even worse by the kidnapping and murder of Paul’s longtime friend Aldo Moro, the former Italian prime minister, in May. The Pope had been taken to Castel Gandolfo July 14 and had declined steadily.

Still, with Paul’s death, the coverage of the ensuing sede vacante proved the biggest story of the year. At the funeral Aug. 13, there were political, religious and media leaders from around the world, including a delegation representing the United States and led by first lady Rosalynn Carter. The world witnessed the funeral of a humble shepherd, his wooden casket resting in St. Peter’s Square, as he had requested in his will.

Media attention soon shifted from the legacy of Pope Paul to the anticipation and suspense of who might follow him. The ensuing conclave proved the largest and most internationally diverse in papal history. When the cardinals entered the Sistine Chapel, there were 111 electors from five continents. This was a massive increase from the 80 electors who had chosen Paul in 1963 and more than double the 51 cardinals who took part in the 1958 conclave that had elected Pope John XXIII.

This was also a notable conclave for two other reasons. First, this was the first papal conclave since Pope Paul had issued a decree limiting participation of the cardinals to those under the age of 80. This decree excluded 15 elderly members and marked a significant change from the past.

The other huge innovation was that, for the first time in history, the world was able to watch on television the dramatic procession of the cardinals into the chapel with the hymn of the Veni Creator Spiritus intoned by the Sistine Chapel Choir.

As was always true with any papal conclave, speculation centered on those cardinals considered strong candidates for election — cardinals who had been unknown to most Catholics, such as Giuseppe Siri, 72, the archbishop of Genoa; Sergio Pignedoli, 68, a longtime Vatican official; and Giovanni Benelli, 57, the archbishop of Florence and a former Vatican figure. Cardinal Siri was seen as the clear conservative choice, while Cardinals Benelli and Pignedoli were deemed the moderate options.

The only serious names considered among non-Italians were the progressive Cardinals Aloisio Lorscheider of Brazil and Johannes Willebrands of the Netherlands, but neither was seen as a serious possibility.

Many of the Vatican watchers believed that a long conclave might be possible because there was no clear favorite among the Italians, although they suggested the scenario in which the cardinals might coalesce around a lesser-known Italian.

What actually ensued was one of the shortest conclaves in history. After only four ballots, white smoke rose from the small temporary chimney of the Sistine Chapel Aug. 26. Just as surprising was the announcement that Cardinal Albino Luciani, the 65-year-old patriarch of Venice, had been elected and had taken the name John Paul I. It was the first-ever double name for a pope, intended to honor both John XXIII and Paul VI. It was a statement that the new pontiff was committed to the implementation of the Second Vatican Council.

Significantly, he did not merely take the name in honor of John and Paul; he stressed that he was to be called John Paul “the First,” as though already looking forward to a future pope who would take the same name.

His pontificate began with two omens. At the time of his election, he gently told the cardinals, “May God forgive you for what you have just done.” Similarly, because of his diminutive size, when he entered the Chapel of Tears, the room just off the Sistine Chapel where the new pope is dressed in the papal white cassock by a representative from the venerable papal tailor, Gammarelli, the smallest of the three sizes was still far too large for him. It was as though he was literally overwhelmed by the enormity of the office.

The new pope captivated the media with an endearing personality, and he was instantly dubbed the “Smiling Pope.” Known for his pastoral and gentle temperament, he was the apparent compromise between conservatives and moderates, and the cardinals returned home eager to see how he would guide the Church in the coming years. The smiles proved very short-lived.

The surprise of the election of Pope John Paul I was transformed into genuine shock when the announcement was made Sept. 28 that he had died from an apparent heart attack after a pontificate of barely a month. The cardinals made their way back to Rome for the second papal funeral and the second conclave in six weeks. The mood this time was also far more somber, and the sense of drama and uncertainty higher, as well.

The conclave began Oct. 14, and The Washington Post captured the general media perspective in its Oct. 15 update. “No one can predict the outcome with certainty,” the paper reported, “but it was clear that a consensus had emerged that the next pope would be another Italian and that he need not necessarily be someone who currently has pastoral duties at the head of a major diocese.”

In the usual right-left approach to the coverage, the moderate Cardinal Benelli was again supposedly the favorite, opposed by the conservative Cardinal Siri, and the speculation suggested the two again might cancel each other out. As with the conclave in August, little attention had been paid to the idea of a non-Italian, but among those mentioned was Cardinal Basil Hume of England.

The votes of conclaves are secret, of course, but based on many accounts from the time, Cardinal Benelli was strong in the first vote, but then faded. It was at that moment, with the conclave searching for a way forward, that an unexpected name emerged, thanks to the quiet suggestions of Cardinals Franz König of Vienna and John Krol of Philadelphia: Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the 58-year-old archbishop of Krakow, Poland. He was elected on the eighth ballot in the afternoon of Oct. 16 and announced to the astonished world as Pope John Paul II, the 263rd successor of St. Peter the Apostle.

Even as the world’s media struggled to pronounce his name, the new pontiff walked onto the loggia and declared, in Italian, “We are still all very saddened by the death of the very dear Pope John Paul I. And now the most eminent cardinals have called a new bishop of Rome. They called him from a far-away country … far, but always near in the communion of faith and the Christian Tradition.”

He went on to inaugurate his pontificate a few days later with the legendary call, “Be not afraid!”

On Oct. 16, 2003, on the 25th anniversary of John Paul’s election, his eventual successor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, said at the beginning of a thanksgiving Mass:

“You said at that time that you came from a distant country, but we saw immediately that the faith in Jesus Christ that shone from your words and from your whole person overcomes all distances; that, in the faith, we have all grown close to one another.”

The “Year of Three Popes” was a reminder of faith and of hope. Three popes: John Paul II is a saint, Paul VI will be canonized in October, and John Paul I is on his way to canonization. All three left their marks in different ways.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen had expressed it well at the funeral of Paul VI. There is, indeed, something solid about the papacy.

The Rock of Peter is stable and fixed, but then there are waters that flow. The year 1978 began with the passing of an era at a time of challenge for the Church. It ended with the start of a new time of renewal, whose fruits we are still harvesting.

Matthew E. Bunson is a

Register senior editor.