Cover Story: The September Pope

John Paul I's sudden death stuns and saddens the Christian world

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The last day of John Paul's life followed the routine that he had set almost from his first day in office. He arose at 5, for he found the quiet early-morning hours his most productive time. After Mass at the private chapel a few yards from his bedroom in the Apostolic Palace, he breakfasted in his dining room, worked in his bedroom till about 8, then took the antiquated elevator one floor below for the start of his official day. In halting English he told ten Filipino prelates, making their periodic report to the papacy, that Jesus spoke of justice and social liberation, but also could not remain silent about the fullness of life in the Kingdom of Heaven.

After a spare lunch and afternoon siesta, John Paul returned to his desk. Milan's Giovanni Cardinal Colombo, who talked to him by phone, recalled that he sounded "full of serenity and hope." He summoned Sebastiano Cardinal Baggio, head of the Congregation for Bishops and a papabile (papal possibility) going into the last conclave, to discuss pressing business. At 7:30 he had his usual daily meeting with Vatican Secretary of State Jean Villot, 72, who within hours was to become once more the interim administrator, or Camerlengo, of the Holy See. Villot said that the Pope showed no signs of fatigue as he bade him good night. The day ended where it began, in the chapel with evening prayer. As the staff members retired, they told John Paul of the fatal ambush of a Communist youth by right-wing extremists in Rome. "They kill each other —even the young people," he lamented. They were the last words anyone would hear him utter.

Early Friday morning the street cleaners and taxi drivers saw the light burning in the papal apartment and took some comfort, perhaps, in the thought that their Pope, like them, was already about his duties. When the Pope did not appear at Mass time, Father John Magee, one of his secretaries, assumed the alarm clock had not gone off and went to knock on the bedroom door. Receiving no answer, he entered and found John Paul propped up on pillows in a half-sitting position, with a reading lamp still on and Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ open beside him. His face bore the sort of smile that had already earned him around the world the appellation "the smiling Pope," as if to suggest that he had effortlessly slipped into eternity.

Magee summoned Villot and Assistant Papal Physician Renato Buzzonetti; the doctor determined that death had come from a stroke around 11 the previous night. Two hours after the body was found, the Vatican announced the death in a statement of scriptural simplicity. By noon the Pontiffs body was laid in the frescoed splendor of the Clementine Hall in the Apostolic Palace. Romans and tourists formed a mile-and-a-half queue that wound around St. Peter's Square to pay then- respects to the Pope. At the bier two nuns in blue, overcome, rushed through a gap in the wooden barrier to kiss the dead Pope's hands. White-tied Vatican ushers rushed forward, hissing, "Perfavore, suore!" (Sisters, please!). In the line, New Jerseyite Diane Rapp, 23, remarked, "He was a young people's Pope. He died too soon." In a Saturday-night procession, the body was carried into St. Peter's Basilica to lie in state there.

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