Last year will go down in ecclesiastical history as the Year of the Three Popes. I am convinced that 1979 will be chronicled by the historians of the future as the year of Pope John Paul II.
Hardly a hundred days have passed since that extraordinary October evening when the College of Cardinals made decisive break with a tradition of nearly 500 years and elected not only a non-Italian Pope, but a Polish one to boot.
It now seems evident that the role of Pope John Paul I was precisely that of St John the Baptist -to prepare the way for an even greater figure. Certainly without the untimely death of Albino Luciani, carrying with it a profound sense of urgency and shock, the election of a nonItalian would not have been a possibility.
As it was, it now seems evident From reports from a number of sources that another Italian was nearly elected, Cardinal Benelli, the present Archbishop of Florence, and only a handful of votes stood between him and the Chair of Peter at the end of voting on the first day.
When it became evident that Cardinal Benelli could not command the necessary majority, his support began to disintegrate and the dashing figure of Cardinal Wojtyla emerged.
So far there are no great deeds to chronicle of this pontificate, and indeed some already have a sense of anti-climax and are wondering when the Pope will show his hand on a number of issues. The Pope indeed is not a man in a hurry. Why should he be?
After all, he has come to the papacy at the early age of 58, the youngest Pontiff since Pio Norio was elected to the See of Peter at 54.
The new Pope is clearly a cautious man and is going to proceed at his own pace, but this is a prudence based on strength not a pusillanmity founded on weakness.
In everything Pope John Paul II has done he has shown himself to be his own man. Once he has made up his mind on a matter, whether big or small, he is unshakeable.. His determination is shown in one small but revealing incident -his choice of a coat of arms.
He was determined to honour the Mother of God by including an "M" in it. In vain did the heraldic experts, including our own Apostolic Delegate, point out that letters are unheraldic and that Mary could be adequately represented by a seven point star, the Pope was determined to have his "M" and there it is.
The Pope has an amazing faculty for dealing with crowds. He responds to them intuitively. individually and easily. It doesn't matter whether the audience is of nuns, or students, or intellectuals, or theologians. His touch is equally sure.
What is so impressive is that he gives the impression that everything he says is based on a deep interior knowledge and experience. He has lived what he is declaring.
This capacity to communicate is clearly of paramount importance to the papacy in an age of mass media.
Pope John Paul II is a man 01 profound conviction, endowed with startling intellectual and spiritual gifts. At the same time he is remarkably open to people, whether great in worldly terms or unimportant by that limited criterion.
Public personalities as different as those of the President of Poland, the King of Spain, and the President of France have all come away from their audiences deeply impressed by the integrity of the new Pope. So have many leading members of the Press.
Pope John Paul is evidently not going to be the prisoner of the Vatican, either mentally or physically.
In the course ot the present year he is due to visit Mexico for the Congress of the South American Bishops, will go to the Lebanon if he thinks he can be of help, and will be back in his native Poland in May.
What the Pope has already shown is his profound concern with the great issues, and that despite all his affability and his charm he is a deeply serious man. He summed up his public aims in his first message to the Church and the World: "We desire, furthermore, to turn to all men who, as sons of the Omnipotent God, are our brothers in love and service.
"We say to them without pre sumption, but with sincere humility, that we desire to make an effective contribution to the cause of permanent and prevailing peace, of development, of international justice. We have no intention of political interference Or of participation in the working out of temporal affairs."
In those wise and balanced words the Holy Father has given us all cause for hope and confidence as we move into the troubled waters of 1979.