NEXT FRIDAY will be the feast of St Hedwig. one of Poland's several patron saints. This year it will be the twentieth anniversary of the election of Poland's Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II. This came as the climax of two of the most dramatic months in the modem history of the papacy.
I have been browsing through the pages of The Catholic Herald for that period, taking in. as it did, the death of Paul VI (August 6), the entire pontificate of John Paul I (August 25 -September 28) and the election of John Paul II (October 16). We all remember 1978 as "the year of three Popes".
My browsing brought back vivid memories of exciting days at The Catholic Herald. Richard Dowling had recently taken over from me as editor but we continued to work closely together. Within hours of the election to the papacy of Albino Luciani, Patriarch of Venice, we had got wind of letters written by him to various literary and historical characters. At the crack of dawn next morning, we were telephone-surfing the Veneto area to try and track down the publishers. We eventually traced them to the offices of "11 Messagero di Sant Antonio" in Padua. Unfortunately I had to do all the talking but. fortunately, my Italian proved (just) equal to the task and we secured the exclusive English language serial rights to the letters. We didn't discover till later that we were only one step ahead of several other pursuers of the same scent.
The lette rs written to such figures in history as Our Lord himself, Dickens. Marconi and St Therese of Lisieux and, from literature, as Don Quixote and Pinocchio. They started appearing the following week in The Catholic Herald and were a sensational success.
High hopes of the dawn of a new era, however, were dashed with Luciani's sudden death in the middle of the night on September 28. The Church andl the world were stunned bu t it was already known that the new Pope, in only a mconth, had made powerful enemies within the Vatican.
Widespread calls for an autopsy were refused. which only inflamed the rumours of murder by poison. But of this there was no convincing direct evidence. Th_e more disturbing hypothesis of John Cornwell however, in his book A Thief in the Night, has never, to this day, been satisfactorily answered.
Shock-horror, however, was replaced with amazing speed by renewed euphoria with the election, just over two weeks later, of the first non-Italian Pope for 45 5 years. It only became evi dent later how much the pre vious pontificate had overshadaawed the ensuing conclave. The Vatican had had a fright, though few at the top admitted it. -The basic desire now was for a "safe" candidate, as aginst a radica: approach.
THENEW Pope. howver, surprised everyone. His assertion on the Inorrow of his election that completion of the work of the Council would be :his first priority pleased the -progressives", though they iere abandoning most of their hopes within a year. On the other hand, the "conservatives:" started getting some rude shocks as well. The pontificate had begun, in other words, of the man who has already carved his name as the Pope of Paradox.
It will be rn_any years after his death before an adequate assessment can be made of the long-team. effects of his controversial but charismatic years on the thirone of Peter. What we arm watching now is a display of c ourage against infirmity that coauld bringJohn Paul triumph.antly into the next milIeniurri. We hope and pray it will.
Gerard Noel .14.--,as Editor-of The Catholic Herald ,crom 1971-76 and ft-om 1982-84