Cover Story: The September Pope

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

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The lack of a ring—the emblem of authority—was a telling sign that John Paul's achievements, however impressive, were only symbolic. His death left Catholicism facing an array of groaning problems that were only obscured for a time in the joy of his election and the weeks of his papacy. Like Christianity in general, Roman Catholicism is still navigating perilously in secular and self-indulgent times. There are many specific threats from within, from an archbishop's small but troublesome rebellion on the right to a more subtle revolt against papal teaching and authority on the left, as well as a growing shortage of priests and nuns that could in time spell institutional collapse in some areas. Carlo Confalonieri, 85-year-old dean of the Sacred College, spoke out of his sense of intense loss at John Paul's death, but he aptly expressed the mood as a new Pontiff is chosen: "A mourning on top of another mourning —it is a very grave trial for the church and we must truly pray. Who knows what awaits us now?"

Morto un papa, goes the old Roman saying, se ne fa un altro. "When one Pope dies, we make another." The men most directly charged with what will happen to the church are the Cardinals eligible to take part in the conclave that will elect the new Pope. Hardly had the news of John Paul's death spread across the world than they began winging their way toward Rome. Tanzania's Laurean Cardinal Rugambwa had not even had time to return home from the last election. He was still visiting the U.S. when the word came. Stephen Cardinal Kim of Seoul left directly from a requiem Mass in Myongdong Cathedral to catch the day's last flight to Europe. Daily "congregations" — the early planning meetings of Cardinals present in Rome — began last Saturday. In that first congregation, the 29 Cardinals attending set the Oct. 14 date for the conclave and Oct. 4 for the funeral.

Almost all of the 112 Cardinals convoked have just finished electing a Pope. Some of them complained bitterly about the expense and the discomfort of meeting in the Sistine Chapel. But they all are familiar with the election process. Moreover, they presumably return to Rome with a shared vision of the kind of man they want to elect — a consensus shaped during the hot, anxious days of August after the death of Pope Paul VI.

They also must recognize that John Paul's reign set a new seal on the papacy. That fact may limit to some extent the Cardinals' range of choice. "Now they are going to elect not a successor to Pope Paul but a successor to Pope John Paul," said U.S. Sociologist Father Andrew Greeley last week. "That is a big difference. If he had been an ordinary Pope, this next conclave would be a rehash, but he was a very special man and Pope who has changed the whole ambience that the Cardinals are coming back to." Many other Catholics— prelates, theologians, lay people — also want to look for another Albino Luciani. Observes Canon Lawyer Ladislas Orsy, a Vatican veteran now at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.: "The very fact that John Paul's election was so successful will inevitably influence the next one. I think the Cardinals will look in the same direction as they did before."

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