In its bimillenial history, the Roman papacy has been run by saints and rogues, men of great spiritual wisdom and short-sighted politicians. But no matter who has governed the Barque of Peter, it has never lacked the ability to astound itself and the world about it.
With the lightning-like election of the cardinal of Venice, Albino Luciani as John Paul I. the papacy has scored another unexpected triumph. As the aged Cardinal Jose Maurer of Bolivia remarked, "neither politics nor the Holy Spirit played a part. They didn't get there on time."
What immediately struck many as the new supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic church appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's Saturday to give his blessing urbi et orbi - to the city and to the world - was his great smile.
For the second time in two decades, the church had come forth with a man whose face betrayed his personality. Pope John Paul's smile seemed to begin at the bottom of his shoes and irradiate throuhtout his person until it broke out irresistibly over his whole countenance. As with Pope John XXIII, that smile covered a multitude of deep-seated human characteristics.
When at noon on Sunday, the new holy father appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to say the Angelus - the church's noon-day prayer - with the immense mob of people in the square, he began at once "fer I . . ." - "yesterday."
The crowd roared with joy and laughter. This pontiff, they thought, was going to share a confidence, let them in on a secret of the conclave that his predecessor has surrounded with such terribly severity.
"Ier I!" he began again.But he had to pause to overcome his own laughter.
"Yesterday," he said, "in the morning when I went into the Sistine Chapel to vote, I was serene. I never imagined what was about to take place. But as soon as it began to turn dangerously in my favor the next man to me it was Dutch cardinal, Johannes Willebrands) whispered, 'Courage. If God gives a burden, he gives the strength to bear it.' And the man on my other side (cardinal Antonio Ribeiro of Portugal) said softly, 'Don't be afraid. All the world prays for the new pope.' When the moment came, I accepted it."
Again the crowd roared for joy and the pontiff explained why he took the double name of John and Paul: the first had consecrated him a bishop; the second made him a cardinal.
But what was of much greater importance was that in taking the name of John Paul I he was declaring unmistakably that his pontificate would be his own. It would fulfill the heritage he received from both predecessors, but it would have a Luciani stamp from the start. That name told his colleagues and the church that in following the footsteps of his predecessors, he was going to complete the reforms of the church initiated by the Second Vatican Council.
With that unmistakable "the first" after his name, he seemed to say that the period of post-conciliar conflict was over. Henceforth, there was no room for an extreme right and an extreme left. John Paul "the first" was in charge and as Leo Cardinal Suenens once remarked, his line would be right down the "extreme center."
On Sunday morning in his talk to the Catholic world at the end of the televised mass concelebrated with the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, the new holy father laid out the general lines of is pontificate.
He would naturally pursue authentic doctrine, and would bring the church's discipline into line. He would try to complete the revision of the church's canon law, and encourage the drive toward ecumenism, conscious as he was of the scandal given the world by the continued disunity between Christians.
Then, lest progressives among his audience become alarmed, he insisted that nothing would be done without the assistance of his fellow bishops, that he would pursue vigorously what Pope Paul had initiated by way of the collegiality of the bishops in the Roman synods.
In his youthful days as priest and prelate, Albino Luciani had taught catechetics and was a professor of doctrine and moral theology at the provincial seminary of Belluns for over a decade. But as parish priest, bishop of Vittorio Veneto, and Patriarch of Venice, he had functioned mainly as a pastor interested in the ordinary people in the street among whom he had grown up as a boy in a poor family.
Thus in restructing the church's way of life, he indicated quite clearly that he would be fully aware of the temper of the times and the needs of tomorrow's church.
Then as if suddenly remembering, he offered his greeting to governments and peoples, other religions, and the rich and poor of all the world.
An illuminating insight into the new pontiff's mind and personality is furnished by a book he published two years ago. It is a series of imaginary letters that he wrote to historical and literary characters. These reveal a surprisingly wide and deep culture and an incredibly mischievous sense of the humorous and absurd as well as of the subtler and finer aspects of mankind's behavior down the centuries.
Full of wit, exquisite good sense and wise historical consciensness, these literary pieces betray a genius that, despite his denial, puts him on a level with what he referred to as "John's wisdom," and "Paul's experience."
In the most revealing of these letters, Luciani addressed the great spiritual giant of the 11th century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (who) gave Abelard and Heloise such a hard time) asking him for advice on how to conduct himself as patriarch of Venice.
Luciani reminded the saint that "you have been the admonitor of emperors and popes, kings feudal lords and vassals." Then he recounts the use made of Bernard's letter in which the saint advices a cardinal in conclave who wanted to know which of three candidates to vote for - a saint, a learned prelate or a prudent man. Bernard's reply: "The first is a saint? He will pray for us saying a few 'Our Fathers' for us sinners.
"The second is learned? He'll edify us with his teaching and write a few books.
"The third is a man of prudence? He'll govern us. Make him pope."
This piece of fiction written several years ago could well prove a directional signal for what the new pope intends to do. He may rule the church with the benevolence suggested by Christ in the gospel - as a servant of God's servants.
As the new pontiff settled into position, many Catholics and people in the outside world were anxiously awaiting what he would do about the problems immediately bothering them - birth control, divorce, the liturgy, the ordination of married men or of women.
He could not change the church's official teaching on any of these matters. But what he could do would be to let them be debated until a new maturity in keeping with the needs of the times brought them into clearer perspective.
This he certainly appeared to want to do in conjunction with the advice and assistance of his fellow cardinals and bishops around the world. He said explicitly he would pursue the collegial nature of the church's governing, sharing decisions with the bishops as indicated by the Second Vatican Council, and put into effect by Pope Paul with the Roman synod of bishops.
Among his first tasks as pope, John Paul I reappointed the French cardinal, Jean Villot, as secretary of state and he reinstated other cardinals in their Vatican positions to fill out the terms to which they had been named by Pope Paul.
Then, never having been a member of the papal household or the Curia, he had to familiarize himself with Vatican custom and topography.
Finally, he had to become familiar with the protocol for dealing with the vast diplomatic corps and the innumerable ranking visitors, from cardinals and bishops to religious and lay leaders, to whom his predecesssors gave private audiences. He decided to resume the regular public Wednesday audiences.
Whether or not Pope John Paul I will attempt the herculean task of truly reforming the curial bureaucracy and reducing the church to the simple form it had when it left the hands of Christ its founder, was still to be seen.
For the moment he was happy to be able just to catch his beath and realize, as Pope John suddenly did, that he was the pope and the next in command was his master, Jesus Christ. It was with him as pope that the spiritual buck stopped.