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Msgr. Pedro Lopez-Gallo

'Do you want to have four Popes in 1978?'

Voices Sep 4, 2017

Cardinal Albino Luciani is seen in 1969, nine years before his election as Pope John Paul I. His papacy was short lived, as he died of a heart attack only 33 days after he was elected.

Msgr. Lopez-Gallo continues his series on the eight Popes who forged his priesthood. This week, he recalls Pope John Paul I.


As soon as Cardinal Albino Luciani, Patriarch of Venice, got the news of the death of Pope Paul VI he purchased his train ticket from Venice to Rome and back.  He wanted to pay his last respects to his great friend and pray before his coffin.  For nine days the body of Paul VI remained open to receive the homage and prayers of thousands of cardinals, bishops, faithful, and even non-Catholics.

Cardinal Luciani also needed to attend the conclave to elect the new Pope.  He had a particular attachment to Paul VI who named him cardinal on March 5, 1969.  He never suspected that God was calling him for a trip with no return when he entered the conclave that met on Aug. 26, 1978.  With incredible swiftness he was elected on the fourth ballot the very first day of the conclave and became the successor to Paul VI.  His election surprised firstly the cardinal himself, who did not consider himself a papabile, but the whole world welcomed him because of his warmth and sincerity. 

He chose the name John Paul as a reflection of his immediate predecessors and a promise to carry on their work.  Though he was little known outside of Italy, it appears that the majority of cardinals were anxious for a new style of Pope, one without curial connections but with pastoral experience, and his election was welcomed as that of “God’s candidate.”

The program Pope John Paul outlined the day after his election proposed the following: to continue to put into effect the heritage of Vatican II; to preserve the integrity of Church discipline in the lives of priests and faithful; to continue the ecumenical thrust; to pursue with firmness the constructive dialogue of Paul VI and support every worthy initiative for world peace.

But he did not live to carry out this program.  The Church and the world were shocked by his sudden death of a heart attack after barely a month in office.  His death was not the result of a fanciful or pseudo murder plot to bring his pontificate to an abrupt end.  He had long suffered from poor health, but his illness was kept secret and not revealed until after his death.

His election had brought fulfillment to the longing of people’s hearts for a leader who radiated joy, holiness and love.  It was a time of pandemonium in Italy.  The Red Brigades were close to attaining national power.  So tense was the situation of terrorism and political manslaughter that in one of the sessions preparing for the conclave, an American cardinal proposed transferring the Holy See to the United States, an idea which was immediately rebuffed.  Solutions were proposed in choosing somebody who had experience of the Soviet system.  Two names were suggested: Cardinal Alfred Bensch, Archbishop of Berlin-East (then under the regime of the Soviet Union); and Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, Archbishop of Warsaw. 

The German cardinals immediately rejected the suggestion. “A German Pope is unthinkable.  He will be accused in one way or another of relations with Nazism,” but they had no problem with the Polish candidate.  Cardinal Wyszynski of Warsaw, however, reacted:  “Never in my life!  I am nearly 80.  Do you want to have four Popes in 1978?  But I can suggest somebody who knows and has fought communism – Karol Wojtyla.”

“Who is Wojtyla?” they answered.

Who was Wojtyla?  Let me say a little about his life.  Karol Joseph Wojtyla was born on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, a provincial town near Krakow.  When he was 8, his mother died of childbirth, and his older brother died of scarlet fever.  Young Karol and his father, a retired army officer, lived by themselves for the next nine years.  He would later write that his father’s piety, austerity, and interest in Polish literature and history constituted his “first seminary.”

Wojtyla received an excellent classical elementary and secondary education.  During high school he immersed himself in the classics of Polish romantic literature and became deeply involved in theatre.  In 1938, Wojtyla moved with his father to Krakow to begin studies in Polish philology at the Jagiellonian University.  His career was interrupted by the Second World War.  Shortly after the invasion of Poland, the Nazis closed the university and shipped many of its professors to concentration camps. 

From 1939 to 1945 Wojtyla was heavily engaged in various forms of cultural resistance to the German occupation of his homeland.  He founded the Rhapsodic Theatre, a clandestine troupe whose productions of Polish classics helped keep alive the national memory the Nazis were determined to erase.  He joined UNIA, a clandestine movement which included armed cadres to save Polish Jews from the Holocaust.  For five years, Wojtyla lived with daily risk to his life.