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30 years ago..

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.

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posted August 27, 2008 at 9:31 am

I was in first grade at a St. Joseph’s in Logansport and I actually remember thinking: “How often do we do this?!”

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posted August 27, 2008 at 10:47 am

I’m with you Chris– I was six years old at the time, and started to worry that these lengthy papal funerals and other tv coverage (pre-empting cartoons!) were a fairly regular event…

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Rena Black

posted August 27, 2008 at 12:09 pm

I was in my freshman year of college when John Paul *II* died. (Just thought I’d rub in the age thing for a second…)

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posted August 27, 2008 at 12:16 pm

Cardinal Ratzinger also had this to say in a homily following the death of JPI —
. . . In the history of the popes there is a person similar to [John Paul I] in his destiny and who could help us to bear this better; this is Marcellus II, next to whom John Paul I has now found his final resting place.
It was the year 1555: The Council of Trent had been interrupted without concrete results and there did not seem any possibility of it beginning. Thus the Church remained torn between renewal and reform, as if sunk in a deep depression, unable to pull itself out. Thus in one of the shortest conclaves in history, Cardinal Cervini was elected by acclamation. . . .
After 22 days he died. And another Augustinian, Parvenio, applied to him with sorrow the words which Virgil had once written for another Marcellus: Ostensus est nobis, non datus. (He was only shown to us, not given.) In spite of this, historians of the papacy affirm that this pontificate of only 22 days represented a true turnabout, a point of departure, a great step from which there would be no return. The door was thrown open. The reform had turned into a reform; that is, there could no longer be a return to a comfortable existence, but rather an aiming towards the center of the faith, and the church began again to live.
Ostensus non datus: shown to us but not given. This is what we would like to say about Pope John Paul I, whose smile conquered the attention and gaze of the world. . . .
We can glimpse a part of his spiritual journey from his letters, gathered together in this very beautiful book, Illustrissimi which in its simplicity, serenity and greatness has remained as his enduring testament.
Particularly moving is his letter to Therese of Lisieux with whom he had a special intimate affinity. He says to her, “Love in little things. Often this is the only kind possible. I never had the chance to jump into a river to save a drowning man; I have been very often asked to lend something, to write letters, to give simple and easy instructions. I have never met a mad dog; instead I have met some irritating flies and mosquitoes. I have never had persecutors beat me but many people disturb me with noises in the street, with the volume of the television turned up too high or unfortunately with making noise in drinking soup. To help, however, one can not take it amiss, to be understanding; to remain calm and smiling (as much as possible) in such occasions is to love one’s neighbour without rhetoric in a practical way”. . . .
Ostensus, non datus – he was shown to us, not given, Can we truly say that? No, I hold that the correct formulation should be: Ostensus et datus – he was shown to us and he gave himself to us, with his soul, to the limits of his strength. . . .

Homily of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger following the death of Pope John Paul the First, October 6, 1978

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Memphis Aggie

posted August 27, 2008 at 1:30 pm

Thanks Bender that was a welcome addition: “Ostensus non datus” very memorable.

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posted August 27, 2008 at 4:36 pm

Amy, I too, was a college freshman that year. I distinctly remember seeing a newspaper that day (no CNN back then!) and thinking, that’s an old paper, and being shocked when I realized that JP I had died. I also remember having quite the crush on JP II. Very vibrant and young and vigorous.

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posted August 27, 2008 at 5:53 pm

I was eight. I went into parochial school that year, and for some reason I don’t remember much about the first papal funeral and election. Probably my parents didn’t want me to worry about it, or I was too busy with all the new things to read the newspaper. I think I didn’t start reading the newspaper regularly until that year, actually.
But I remember looking through some books in the parochial school library on popes, and being a little overwhelmed and impressed by how much stuff the Catholic Church had gone through. Pope John Paul II getting elected — that I remember. I think I came home from school to a lot of coverage. I thought he seemed like a good person to run things, and I liked that he was Polish instead of Italian. (I also understood that the Soviets wouldn’t like it, which was fine with me.) It was good to hear good news instead of bad.

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Joe C.

posted August 27, 2008 at 6:26 pm

For a German not to close a door is a big deal. They always close all doors to rooms whether they are empty or not. It’s just a cultural thing. He must have really felt comfortable.

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posted August 27, 2008 at 6:39 pm

I was a college freshman too — except I went to the community college and lived at home.
Mom poked me awake in the morning and said, “The Pope is dead.” “Yes, Mom, I know, he died a month ago.” After that she clarified things.

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K R Coolidge

posted August 27, 2008 at 7:08 pm

I was beginning my sophomore year in college at a small Georgia college–and “convert classes”–the forerunner of RCIA. It was quite the year.

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posted August 27, 2008 at 9:43 pm

It just happened to work out that i heard my only “four bell” dings from AP teletypes in August and September of 1978; i was interning at a radio station (WNWI) when Pope Paul VI died, and i was just starting at the Purdue Exponent, in the sub-basement of the Purdue Memorial Union, when Pope John Paul I died.
At the radio station, a crusty old DJ said, after all heads swiveled at three, and eyes widened at four, “Son, you’ll probably never hear that again.” He, on the other hand, had heard five bells, November 22 of 1963.
My good fortune was to be a freshman in journalism when Quark tiptoed into the newsroom, and to watch as razor blades and grease pencils and light tables were slowly, steadily displaced by computer layout. But that was a moving period of time, even for a Protestant boy who grew up in the Chicago area.
And then the stories began to leak back as to what John Paul I was reading in bed when he died, and Chicagoans nodded their heads — “So it was Cody who killed the good man.”

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posted August 28, 2008 at 1:14 am

I was nine. I don’t think I even knew we had a pope before that year.
That was so lovely, Bender, it brought tears to my eyes.

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posted August 28, 2008 at 11:59 am

The greats never go alone. They always have someone preceding them to prepare the way.
To begin with, it was John Paul the First — not the Second — who began the new dawn of the Church, following the stormy night of the 20th century, which we were able to withstand because of the shelter of the Council and bravery of Paul VI. It was John Paul the First — not the Second — who began the process of demonstrating that the Church is not old and musty, but ever fresh and alive.
Having accomplished that feat (in a remarkably short amount of time), he accomplished another great feat by the very fact of his relatively brief papacy. It was that very briefness that led the cardinal-electors to look beyond Italy for a shepherd of the Church. It was John Paul the First’s seeming premature death that opened the door to the election of John Paul the Great. Had he had a long papacy, or had someone else been elected to succeed Paul VI, it is a near certainty that we never would have had Karol Wojtyla as pope.
We might have had a John Paul the Second, that is, someone other than Karol Wojtyla, but we would not have had a John Paul the Great.
No, the cardinals did not get it wrong the first time. The Holy Spirit knew what He was doing in guiding the election of Albino Luciani, and in bringing him to the Father’s house after he had accomplished his mission of preparing the way for the Rock who would lead the Church from the dawn to the bright day.

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Lori Pieper

posted August 28, 2008 at 2:12 pm

Bender, that’s really beautiful!
I was in college myself when John Paul I was elected. It was the first papal election I was able to remember, I was too young to remember 1963 when Pope Paul VI was elected. Papa Luciani’s election had an enormous impact on me.
Thirty years, and the overwhelming impact and personality of JPII have perhaps made many forget what JPI really did. Not just the great symbolic gesture – he was the first pope in a thousand years to reject a coronation — but the style, the personality, the humor, the simplicity of his words that focused worldwide attention on the message of the Gospel in an unforgettable way. Right after he died, a prominent religious personality in Rome said that from now on, papal candidates should have a test to see how well they did on TV (no that’s not everything, but it helps).
He also told a lot of people before his election that he thought there should be a non-Italian pope. I guess he quickly arranged things with God once he got to heaven! So in many ways, I think he really was responsible for John Paul II.
I pray that they may be beatified together — it would be really fitting.

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Jacqueline Y.

posted August 28, 2008 at 5:54 pm

I was in the hospital recovering from the birth of my third child when my mother (an agnostic with a Protestant background) brought me the news of John Paul I’s death: “Your pope died — again!” Then JP II was elected, and getting to know him was a slow process at first, what with two preschoolers and a baby needing my attention. It didn’t help that the only paper we subscribed to at the time, the New York Times, was on strike in the weeks surrounding the new papal conclave. I’ve often wondered what interesting coverage was never published (or never even written) because of that strike. It wasn’t until JP II’s first visit to the US the following year (1979) that I began to see what an extraordinary gift to the Church (and the world) he truly was. The years 1968-1978 had been really demoralizing to me (a 1967 convert). John Paul the Great brought a new springtime for my faith.

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Susan Peterson

posted August 28, 2008 at 7:50 pm

I was picking up two of my children at Holy Comforter Lutheran School on York Road in Baltimore; I had the preschooler and the baby with me. Someone had just heard on the car radio that JP I had died. I could hardly grasp the idea that there was going to have to be another conclave. I had a terrible feeling of the precariousness of life.
Susan Peterson

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posted August 29, 2008 at 7:12 am

I was entering my senior year in high school and de-thatching the lawn when my mom hailed me inside to hear the news of the election of JP1. I don’t think younger people today understand the effect his election had on many at the time – Papa Luciani was a luminous person and made a deep impression.
I’ve lost my copy of Illustrissimi that I purchased at the time – that bugs me.
I can still remember to this day my mother’s tears on the morning we awoke to the news of Papa Luciani’s sudden death. And how upset people were in school (and I was in a huge public high school).
And indeed, the entirety of Pope John Paul I’s reign went entirely unrecorded by the NY Times, which was struck a couple of days after Pope Paul VI’s death and remained struck until just before the October conclave that elected John Paul II.
For some reason, I’ve always take than as a kind of Providential token that John Paul I was more special than most now imagine.

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Lori Pieper

posted August 29, 2008 at 1:14 pm

Liam, I remember the Times striking too — not that I actually paid attention to this until I went to researching JPI’s life. The back files of the paper on microfilm contained only a few AP wire stories from the time. I would have been very curious to see what the Times editorial commentary would have been like.
As an aside, my second installment of my “expose” of the sensationalistic writers about the Pope’s death is up! You can just click the link on my name.

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posted August 31, 2008 at 7:39 pm

I can’t remember Paul VI dying at all. I can’t remember JPI at at either and I was in second grade at a Catholic school. But JPII, he was electifying from day one.

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