Pope Paul VI died suddenly at 81 on Sunday, Aug. 6. His death at Castel Gondolfo caught the Catholic Church and the world by surprise. Vatican officials had just begun their holdays; and Catholics, generally, were at comparative peace.

Among the journalists who runshed to Rome for Paul's obsequies and the election of the next pontiff was Peter Hebblethwaite, scholar, writer and ex-Jesuit who for over a decade had covered Vatican II, the Roman Synods of Bishops, and the Church in Eastern Europe and Latin America.

His book, "The Year of Three Popes," does more than justice to the excitement of the one-day conclave that elected John Paul I to his incredibly short reign, and to the momentous happenings that accompanied his death and the election of the Polish Pope, Karol Wojtyla.

Hebblethwaite's narrative is a vivid, theologically aware recreation of the medieval and contemporary political activities that build up to a conclave, and the effect of the personalities of the three popes on the nature of the papal office.

He gives full credit to Paul VI who in his 15-year reign held the Church together despite the centrifugal forces unleased by Vatican Council II.

Hebblethwaite finds it hard to fault Paul for the admixture of political boldness and theological conservatism between which that pontiff judggled with the Church's destiny. Hurt by the exodus of clerics and nuns fromthe ministry, upset by the rejection of his encyclical banning artificial birth control as engendering a "contraceptive mentality," Paul managed to hold the Church intact between the intransigent French Arechibshop Marcel Lefebvre and the theologically ventursome Hans Kung; and between the politically active Dom Helder Camara in Brazil and the immobility of the Hungarian Cardinal Mindszenty.

Hebblethwaite presents a well-limned vignette of Albino Luciani (Pope John Paul's given name), including the cardinal of Venice's poverty-meanced youth, his ecclesiastical career, and his sudden confrontation with the "danger" of being elected pope. In his meteoric pontificate, John Paul (the double name was an innovation) abolished the last trappings of worldly pomp -- the tiara, the coronation ceremony, the throne -- and thus marked the end of the medieval papacy. His death spared him a showdown with many curial officials who felt his administrative abilities and simple sagacty were not up to the sublimity of the papal office.

Hebblethwaite profits from the attempts to crash the obsessive wall of secrecy surrounding the conclave; and rightly challenges the results of the "numbers game" played with the balloting. But he fails to inform the readers that besides the 111 cardinal electors in the conclave there were some 15 octogenarians on the scene who felt their exclusion by a birthday was illegal, unjust, and humiliating. Despite the strictest oaths binding the electors not to discuss the conclave outside its precincts, it is were not let in on the strange happenings of the one-day conclave.

In any case, information regarding the balloting, slightly garbled, was available on Monday morning. On the first ballot, the intransigent Cardinal Siri of Genoa had the support of the curia and got 25 votes; the cardinal lot, Siri rose to some 33 and Luciani to 29 or so.

In John Paul's intentional indiscretions the next day, he told the crowd in St. Peter's square and the TV and radio world that of a sudden he had seen a "danger." This, and the intimations of cardinals Hoffner and Malula, indicated that there had only been three ballots -- despite Cardinals Suenen's and Alfrink's assertion that there were four. Four there were. It was during lunch when the cardinals got a good look at the cheerful Venetain that his fate was sealed; for the curia had decided to drop Siri and vote for the most promising-looking Italian. Luciani shot up to over 60 on the third and close to 90 and the papacy on the fourth ballot.

His immediate appearance as a cheerful pontiff who intended to enjoy the papacy put the Church into a euphoric mood. It lasted 33 days.

Of the conclave that elected Karol Wojtyla, it is known that a battle was fought among Siri, again the curial candidate, Felici of the curia, and Benelli of Florence. On the third ballot, the last name rose close to 60 votes. An when the Italians failed to elect one of their own by the sixth ballot, they lost the game. At lunch on Monday. Wojtyla's candidacy was acknowledged, and he was in on the eighth ballot.

Among his few shortcomings, Hebblethwaite fails to record the dramatic fashion in which Cardinal Felici held the world in suspense between announcing the new pope as "Karolum"... and the "Wojtyla" that revealed the election of the Polish pope. Nor does he make enough of John Paul II's immediate break with precedent as he addressed the crowd from the balustrade of St. Peter's to assure them, in fluent Italian, that while he was "a man from afar" he was now the Bishiop of Rome; and that he would make every effort to speak "your -- no, our" language well. Hebblethwaite also underplays the effect of the mass media on the conclave -- a factor acknowledged by Popes John Paul I and II in their first audiences with the journalists.

"The Year of the Three Popes," composed with alacrity, is well informed, balanced in judgments, conscious of the clash of personalities and issues, and highly entertaining. It is a model of instant, thelological journalism.