It was thirty years ago in August and September that we experienced that period of three popes – Paul VI died on August 6, Albino Luciani was elected Pope, taking the name of John Paul I on August 26, then died on September 29. A second conclave was called and Karol Wojtyla was elected on October 16.
I was beginning my freshman year in college (!) at that time and so was understandably occupied and overwhelmed by various things. I remember hearing about John Paul I’s death – actually during lunch in a cafeteria, I think. My friend and I were eating and over the radio playing on the sound system came the news that the Pope had died and we wondered why they were playing old news…and then I remember the election of John Paul II – watching it in the Catholic Student Center lounge, and the clear sense of excitement we all felt that this Pope was relatively young (even we, from our perspective, in which 58 would normally be “old” could see that) and clearly vigorous, and the fact that he was not Italian said something to us – not that any of us were particularly pope-conscious, but it communicated a wideness and broadness to the Church that perhaps had eluded us before.
Anyway, all that is by introduction to this post at PRF (you’ll have to scroll down and around to find it) in which Teresa Benedetto reprints a very interesting interview from a 2003 issue of the journal 30Days with then-Cardinal Ratzinger about that period. It’s here (somewhere on the page!)
He’s talking about the election of John Paul I here:
What were your impressions after his election?
RATZINGER: I was very happy about it. To have as pastor of the universal Church a man of such goodness and with his luminous faith was a guarantee that things were going well.
He himself was surprised and obviously felt the weight of the great responsibility. You could see he suffered a bit… He hadn’t expected to be elected. He wasn’t a man out to make a career. He thought of the positions he had occupied as rendering service, perhaps even as a suffering.
When was the last time you spoke to him?
RATZINGER: The day of his investiture, on September 3. The archdiocese of Munich and Freising is twinned with the dioceses of Ecuador, and a national Marian Congress had been organized for that month of September in Guayaquil. The local episcopate had asked for me to be appointed papal delegate to the Congress. John Paul I had read the request and decided in favor of it; so, during the traditional leave-taking of cardinals, we spoke about my trip, and he invoked blessings on me and on the whole Church of Ecuador.
Did you go to Ecuador?
RATZINGER: Yes, and it was precisely while I was there that the news of the Pope’s death reached me. In a somewhat curious way.
I was staying in the bishop’s residence in Quito. I hadn’t closed my bedroom door because in a bishop’s residence I feel as though I am in the bosom of Abraham! It was the dead of night when into my room came a swathe of light followed by a man dressed in the Carmelite habit. I was a bit stunned by the light, and the man dressed almost lugubriously looked to be a bearer of bad news. I wasn’t sure if it was a dream or reality.
Finally I realized he was one of the auxiliary bishops of Quito (Alberto Lunar Tobar, now archbishop emeritus of Cuenca, ed.), who came to tell me that the Pope had died. And that is how I learned of the sad and unexpected event.
Despite the news I managed to get back to sleep with the grace of God. In the morning, I celebrated Mass with a German missionary, who, in the prayer of the faithful, prayed «for our late Pope John Paul I». My lay secretary, who was at the Mass, came to me afterwards in dismay that the missionary had made a mistake, that he should have prayed for Paul VI and not for John Paul I. He still hadn’t heard of the death of Albino Luciani.
You saw the Pope at the conclave. When you took your leave of him, did he look like a man who might die within the space of a month?
RATZINGER: He seemed fine to me. Certainly he didn’t give the impression of great health. But many people look frail and then live to be a hundred. I’m no doctor, but he looked in good health to me – even if, like me, he didn’t look very robust. But it is such people who usually have a greater life expectancy.