CHURCH HISTORIANS will record it as a freakishly brief papacy, marginal - perhaps even near nonexistent when viewed against an institutional lifetime of almost 2,000 years. Only 34 days had passed between the ascension of Albino Cardinal Luciani of Venice to the papacy as John Paul I and his death on Thursday of a massive heart attack. Yet this humble, imaginative and joyously alive man caught the world's attention and compelled its sympathy in a remarkable way, given the mere moment he spent in the international limelight.
In fact, it was testimony to the attractiveness and force of his personality that John Paul managed to emerge in this brief moment as an individual at all, let alone as so distinctive an individual. The death of one pope and the election of another necessarily produces a great surge of ceremony and institutional comings and goings almost certain to overpower any effort to hear a particular voice or to discern a single identity in their midst. We have in mind not just ecclesiastical, but also secular, ceremony; not just the gorgeous prescribed formalities of the college of cardinals, but also the ceremonies of the media and other interpreters of these events - the guessing and interviewing and now-it-can-be-told analyses of how the new pope was chosen and what, in broad political/church-world terms, it means. That was a tip-off to John Paul's special gift: Through the deafening mixture of pure noise and stirring music he made his voice heard, his genial personality felt.
John Paul had written a collection of fantasy letters to an extraordinary collection of figures literary and real: Pinocchio, Charles Dickens, Christopher Marlowe, Mark Twain, Penelope of the Odyssey, Jesus. In his imagination he crossed the boundaries of time and place and culture in order to dispute or compliment or just have a cozy chat with those human and legendary beings who had engaged his interest and emotions. This sense of kinship, ease and even familiarity with other worlds and past ages seemed to us to augur well for John Paul's service to the church. So too did his insistence on doing away with some of the regal encumbrances of the papacy, the better to concentrate on its spiritual mission. We have a suspicion that the wonder of John Paul's tenure as pope will not turn out to be that it lasted a mere 34 days, but rather that in that minuscule period of time Pope John Paul I managed to create an aura and an incipient tradition that his successor will want to perpetuate.