Cover Story: The September Pope

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

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After the first rush of emotion had passed, Catholics in many nations came to the conclusion that the remarkable way in which John Paul assumed office might prove in the end his major legacy. At his installation Mass, John Paul insisted on humility and refused to be crowned with a tiara. St. Louis Church Historian John Jay Hughes says, "He abolished the 1,000-year-old ceremony with the tiara and relegated it permanently to the trash heap. It will be impossible to go back to this triumphalism of the past."

When John Paul proclaimed that he was taking the yoke that Christ had placed on "our fragile shoulders," everyone thought he was speaking figuratively and out of characteristic humility. So cheerful was he, so steady of hand, that hardly anyone thought about his health. Detroit's John Cardinal Dearden, who himself survived a heart attack, recalls that John Paul's health was never mentioned in the conclave. One historian wondered if the Cardinals might not be submerged in guilt over the affliction of the man they put in office. Did the pressures of the job exact a sudden toll, as Cardinals Konig and Suenens suggested in the first shock of the news?

In an earlier age so untimely a death might have stirred deep suspicions. "If this were the time of the Borgias," said a young teacher in Rome, "there'd be talk that John Paul was poisoned." Nothing illustrates how far the church has come since those devious days so well as the 1975 decree that no autopsy be permitted on the body of a Pope.

John Paul's brother Edoardo, in Australia on a trade mission, reported that the Pope had been given a clean bill of health after a medical examination three weeks ago. He was frail in health as an infant and as a young priest, but there were no reports of heart trouble. Since taking office he had driven himself, and had expected Vatican officials to arrive at their desks promptly each morning. One veteran in the Curia, however, speculates on possible emotional strain: "It could have been something to do with passing from responsibility for a relatively small diocese of 600,000 Catholics in Venice to responsibility for the entire Catholic world."

As it does when any Pope dies, the work of the Curia last week came to an abrupt halt. All the officials so recently reappointed by John Paul were again suspended; in the last papal interregnum Camerlengo Villot was so strict that one Cardinal who came by his old office was asked to leave immediately. One other traditional rite will not occur this time. A dead Pope's papal ring is ceremonially smashed; historically, the purpose was to prevent forgeries. But John Paul's papal ring will not be smashed—because there had not yet been time to mint one for him.

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