Cover Story: The September Pope

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

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Once again Camerlengo Villot began the ritual of mourning and papal election that is now so familiar to the world. The 112 Cardinal-electors again received the summons to Rome, their trip made easier by the fact that Rome airport employees broke off their strike in respect for the Pontiff. The conclave to choose John Paul's successor will begin on the second earliest day permitted—Oct. 14. The Latin American bishops' conference, a once-a-decade meeting scheduled to begin Oct. 12 in Puebla, Mexico, meanwhile, was postponed. Though John Paul had decided not to attend, the meeting would have given the first clues to the policy of his newborn pontificate.

A week before he died, John Paul told a group of American bishops that he was "just a beginner." That was the truth, and the reason why he will remain forever, in terms of policy, the unknown Pope. In his days in office John Paul was able to sign only one major decree, and even that will now become invalid: a sweeping reform of seminaries that he had postdated for December release. Ironically, the same document was approved by his predecessor, Pope Paul VI, whose postdated signature also became invalid when he died. Now the document must await the scrutiny of a third Pope.

John Paul's only major statement was his address to the Sacred College of Cardinals the day after his election. Father Carl Peter, dean of religious studies at the Catholic University of America, finds one lasting point in that address, the endorsement of ecumenism as a "final directive." Says Peter: "I regard that as a promise that the rest of us will have to keep."

"There are no great deeds of this pontificate to recall," said England's George Basil Cardinal Hume sadly. Deeds, no. Impact, yes. Especially after the intellectual austerity of Paul VI, his successor's radiance, humility, directness and lack of pomp immediately endeared him to masses of people in a media age, as if they had befriended him by wire. "I felt that if I had a problem, I could go to this Pope and talk to him about it," said Father John T. Pagan of New York's Little Flower Children's Services. For many he seemed to rekindle singlehanded some half-lost feeling of goodness about the church.

The John Paul style was etched on the memory most characteristically by his few papal audiences. He dropped the formal "we" and the intellectualized addresses of Paul VI, and inaugurated an era of laughter. In his last audience last week, John Paul interviewed young Daniele Bravo by microphone while 10,000 people listened in. John Paul: "Do you always want to be in the fifth grade?" Daniele: "Yes, so that I don't have to change teachers." Laughter. John Paul: "Well, you are different from the Pope. When I was in the fourth grade I was worried about making it to the fifth." Laughter again.

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