March 23, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

The Japanese pope

By Christopher P. Winner
Published: 2013-03-09

As the first 1978's two conclaves neared (the first, in August, produced Pope John Paul I; the second in October, no. II), I was dispatched on one of many cardinal hunts. Outside San Damaso gate, the Vatican's busy bureaucratic mouth, a car pulled up containing Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the Polish primate. "Your eminence!" I clamored. But he scowled and turned up his right palm. The message was clear: Do not disturb. But there was a second priest I didn't recognize. "This is not the right time," said the priest in gentle Italian. Non è il momento giusto. He was Karol Wojtyla, who would be elected pope little more than a month later.

But who could have imagined that Pope John Paul I's reign would last only a month? No one.

After Luciani, Patriarch of Venice, became John Paul I on Aug. 27, 1978, only a day-and-a-half into the conclave, I was sent to northern Veneto to write about his rural roots. Moved by his television demeanor and his gracious friends, I impulsively sent the pope a good luck telegram, expecting nothing. The next day Vatican chamberlain Cardinal Jean Villot cabled back on the pope's behalf: "The Holy Father thanks you fervently for your personal homage. He blesses you and your family."

In Venice, friends of Luciani expressed private worries about the new pope's stamina. His health had never been good. I paid no attention.

Thirty-three days later, on Sept. 28, 1978, the Associated Press, working from an insider tip, broke the story of Luciani's death, beating all competition and enraging Payton. The Communist daily Lotta Continua, no fan of the Vatican, announced the news in a legendary bottom-of-the-page headline: "É rimorto il papa," literally: "The pope has redied."

Seeking comment among tourists in St. Peter's Square, I found that most assumed that by the pope's death I mean Paul's. "Didn't he die a month ago?" asked one.

For the second time in a month, in rainy mid-October, I found myself back in St. Peter's Square deciphering cryptic smoke signals. The Vatican's emissions — white as yes, black as no — were not viewer-friendly. Wojtyla's evening election on Oct. 16, 1978 took three days to accomplish and included ambiguity and false alarms.

Vatican Radio announcers, wearied by 10 weeks of strain, wilted at times: "White! White! No wait. Wait! Black. It's black. No. No. It's ... grey..." The stormy skies didn't help, nor did inexpert cardinals who apparently failed to memorize how to mix their color-making agents. Picked as a pool reporter to visit the Sistine Chapel before the start of the conclave, I noted the smallness of the stove, a four-legged dwarf under Michelangelo's vast ceiling. It didn't bode well.

But the scene that followed made it worth the wait. When Cardinal Pericle Felice, poised on the main balcony of St. Peter's, announced Wojtyla's name, teasing out the syllables, he faced a crowd of a million that extended from St. Peter's Square to the cusp of the Tiber River. VOY-TEE-WAH, he exclaimed after the stirring Latin exhortation that begins Habemus Papam, "We have a pope."

It registered instantly, and nervously, that the College of Cardinals had picked a foreigner, robbing Italy of a coveted 500-year-old position. The applause was dull, the unhappiness palpable. I stood next to Mary McGrory. "I don't know about this," she said. Beside were two working class Romans. One turned to the other and pumped his hands skyward. "Mò hanno eletto un giapponese ..." They thought the new pope was Japanese.

Spokesman Panciroli, who would later become an archbishop and the papal nuncio to Iran, provided a final if touching hurrah. Breaking with his beloved protocol, he had my Polish-born mother admitted to John Paul II's first public audience. She was perfectly composed until Wojtyla switched from Italian into Polish. Then she wept.

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