The Great Eights Series: 1978

The Year of 3 Popes

In 1978, the battle-weary Paul VI died, and the month-long papacy of John Paul I shocked the College of Cardinals into doing something previously unimaginable, summoning John Paul II from a faraway country.

In the life of the Church, it was also a year of two great homilies — the final homily of Paul VI on his 15th anniversary June 29, and the first homily of John Paul II on Oct. 22.

The agony of the former and the boldness of the latter illustrated the change in the Church’s disposition in moving from Paul VI to John Paul II. “Divine Providence called [Paul VI] in the most delicate moment of the [Second Vatican] Council — when the intuition of Blessed John XXIII was at risk of not taking form,” Pope Benedict XVI recently said on the 30th anniversary of Paul VI’s death. “How can we not give thanks to the Lord for his fertile and courageous pastoral activity? Bit by bit, as our view of the past expands and our understanding deepens, the merit of Paul VI in presiding over the council, leading it happily to its conclusion, and then governing the turbulent post-conciliar phase, appears ever greater — indeed, I would say, almost superhuman.”

Almost. Paul VI was not superhuman; he suffered intensely the ravaging trials of his time. Yet, he suffered all with supernatural grace. Such was the spirit of rebellion and chaos that in 1972 Paul VI spoke of the “smoke of Satan” entering the “temple of God.”

“We believe in something preternatural that has come into the world for the very purpose of disturbing and stifling the fruits of the Second Vatican Council,” Paul said.

By the last months of his life, Paul VI was greatly afflicted by divisions in the Church and tragedies in the world. The communist world was expanding, and his tireless efforts to secure the freedom of the Church in the Soviet empire had borne little fruit. His pleas on behalf of the poor and suffering grew more urgent.

In May 1978, one of Italy’s leading politicians and a personal friend of Paul VI, Aldo Moro, was kidnapped and assassinated by terrorists. The anguish was so great that at the funeral Paul VI pronounced a prayer of great biblical power, adopting the psalmist’s lament that God was not listening to his prayer: “And who can listen to our lament, if not you, O God of life and death? You did not hearken to our supplication for the safety of Aldo Moro, this good, meek, wise, innocent and friendly man; but you, O Lord, have not abandoned his immortal spirit, sealed by faith in Christ, who is the resurrection and the life.”

All this was before Paul VI’s eyes as his delivered his last Peter and Paul homily, on the 15th anniversary of his election and six weeks before his death.

“This is the Church’s faith, the apostolic faith,” he said. “The teaching is preserved intact in the Church through the presence within her of the Holy Spirit, and through the special mission entrusted to Peter, for whom Christ prayed. … Such is the untiring, watchful and consuming purpose that has carried us forward during the 15 years of our pontificate. ‘I have kept the faith!’ we can say today, with the humble but firm consciousness of never having betrayed ‘the holy truth.’”

Pope Paul had to endure the years that the locusts had eaten. But at the threshold of death he proclaimed that he had kept the faith. From the heady days of Vatican II to the dark summer of 1978 was quite a comedown; no longer did the Church speak of a great missionary expansion, but simply of keeping the faith. To someone else would fall the rest.

Paul VI had invited Cardinal Karol Wojtyla to Rome in 1976 to preach the papal retreat. In 1977, he appointed professor Joseph Ratzinger the archbishop of Munich and made him a cardinal soon after. He did more than keep the faith — he prepared the succession.

Another step was needed. An earthquake was required to realign the cardinals’ thinking about the necessity of an Italian pope. The death of John Paul I only 33 days after his election was that shock. In the October 1978 conclave, the youth of Cardinal Wojtyla was now an advantage, and his foreignness was no longer a handicap — the most suitable Italian was already dead.

On Oct. 16 it was done. The young cardinal from Poland was elected John Paul II. And on Oct. 22 he addressed the world in his inaugural homily as Pope — words that would set the Church and the world on a radically different path.

The worst days of the post-conciliar turmoil were over. The Church of compromise with the communists was left behind; a new offensive would be launched.

And the anxiety of a Vatican under siege would soon give way to an itinerant Pope going from triumph to triumph in more than 100 foreign trips.

“Do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power,” John Paul said in what would become the signature phrase of his pontificate. “Help the Pope and all those who wish to serve Christ and with Christ’s power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind. Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid!”

During the last months of Paul VI, there was fear that the world was spinning out of control, the Church would be racked with interminable crises and that the papacy itself might be too large a burden for any man.

By the end of 1978, those fears had subsided. Not entirely, but hope was on the horizon.