"How deep are the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How inscrutable his judgments, how unsearchable his ways!" St. Paul's words rang out across St. Peter's Square in the genial, high-pitched voice of John Paul I on that happy day last month, Sept. 3, when he was installed as Pope and "Supreme Pastor" for the world's 700 million Roman Catholics. The new Pope was invoking Scripture as a commentary on the conclave that had unexpectedly elected him—and in a swift, single day at that. Last week the text he had chosen took on a different meaning as John Paul died of a massive stroke, just 33 days after he had been chosen as St. Peter's 263rd successor.
His speedy selection had seemed to be a second Pentecost, a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, to those Cardinals who participated in the conclave; and his pontificate, brief as it was, had suffused the church with warmth and hope. "In a few days, he captured the world. He really did," said Joseph Califano, the only Roman Catholic in the U.S. Cabinet, after attending a memorial Mass. The Netherlands' Johannes Willebrands spoke for many Cardinals: "It's a disaster. I cannot put into words how happy we were on that August day when we had chosen John Paul. We had such high hopes. It was such a beautiful feeling, a feeling that something fresh was going to happen to our church."
For other princes of the church, trained in theology's formulas to explain the vagaries of existence, there were no ready answers to be grasped on this somber Friday morning. "So soon?" cried Manila's stunned Jaime Cardinal Sin. Said Cologne's Joseph Cardinal Hoffner: "God has willed it, as painful as His will is." And Paris' François Cardinal Marty: "The ways of the Lord are disconcerting to our human perspective." Boston's Humberto Cardinal Medeiros admitted, "I've been trying to say to God, 'It's your doing, and I must accept it.' " With American bluntness, Archbishop James V. Casey of Denver told a reporter, "When we woke up this morning we were a little disappointed and annoyed with God."
What spiritual meaning, indeed, could be found in the briefest pontificate in more than 3½ centuries? Perhaps, reasoned some Catholics, John Paul was preaching a final sermon to his beloved flock, a reminder of the fragility of human existence and the unpredictable but inevitable fact of death. "His death reminds us how small and how weak man is, that life and death are mysteries, that we are in God's hand," said Willebrands. "That is why we also have faith."