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Last Updated: Saturday, 2 April, 2005, 21:36 GMT 22:36 UK
1978: Year of the three popes
Peter Gould
By Peter Gould
BBC News, Rome

Nobody at the Vatican has forgotten 1978. In the space of three extraordinary months, the Catholic Church was led by three different popes.

Popes Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II
Popes Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II
I was one of two thousand journalists who arrived in Rome that August to cover the death of Paul VI, and the election of his successor.

We all knew we had to watch for white smoke, but the intense secrecy surrounding the election was daunting.

The meeting of cardinals was called a "conclave". But were we supposed to report it as a political event, or a spiritual one?

Italians in control

The election had been caused by the death of Paul VI, who had been pope for 15 years. As the faithful and the curious filed past his body, as it lay in state in St Peter's Basilica, stonemasons could be heard in the crypt, chipping away at his tomb.

As the cardinals assembled at the Vatican, it was clear that votes were likely to be split between the leading contenders.

Anticipating possible deadlock, thoughts began to turn towards a compromise candidate - Cardinal Albino Luciani of Venice.

When asked about his chances, he jokingly replied that he was "on the C-list". But some of the locals were more astute.

As I set off for the Vatican, I asked the receptionist at my hotel who he thought would be elected pope. He gave me a knowing look. "Luciani," he said quietly.

Inside the Sistine Chapel, the cardinals were following tradition, burning the used ballot papers in a small stove.

St Peter's Square
In 1978 observers waited anxiously in St Peter's Square for news of the conclave
In St Peter's Square, the eyes of the waiting crowd were focused on the chimney. The first sight of the smoke at midday drew groans. It was black, the sign that the conclave had not yet chosen a new pope.

In the evening, disappointment was replaced by consternation when more smoke appeared.

At first it was white, indicating a new pope had been elected. But then it appeared black, suggesting failure. And when it finally turned grey, our confusion was total.

It was only after the official announcement, and a smiling Luciani emerged onto the balcony of the Basilica, that we could be sure it was all over. The cardinals had elected a pope in a single day.

Cardinal Basil Hume of Westminster was in no doubt that they had chosen the right man, describing Luciani as "God's candidate". The cardinals went home content with their day's work.

Foul play or divine judgement?

The sudden death of John Paul I after just 33 days was a huge shock for the Church, and led to questions about his suitability for the papacy. Was it, some in the Church wondered, an indication by God that the cardinals had got it wrong?

Extraordinary rumours swept Rome. It was whispered that Luciani had been poisoned because senior figures in the Church were so alarmed by their new pope and changes he was thought to be planning.

Speculation was fuelled by discrepancies in the accounts of exactly how he died. Who found the body? Was it really a heart attack? And why was there no autopsy?

The Vatican was outraged by suggestions of foul play, and insisted that a post mortem was never carried out on a pope.

But the questions would not go away. And in 1984, the author David Yallop suggested that Luciani was murdered because he was about to take action over a series of financial scandals allegedly involving the Vatican.

His book In God's Name has sold five million copies, which does at least prove that people love a good conspiracy theory.

The persistent rumours about the death of John Paul I have clearly been a source of great irritation to the Vatican.

In 1987, the writer John Cornwell was actively encouraged by the Church to write his book, A Thief In The Night, in which he analysed the various allegations.

He concluded that the Pope could have been looked after better, given his medical condition. But he rejected claims that Luciani had been the victim of foul play.

Italians out-manoeuvred

When the cardinals and the world's media returned to Rome just a few weeks later, the mood was very different.

Everyone expected the second conclave to be more difficult. For one thing, the age and health of the likely candidates was going to be much more of an issue.

The shock that greeted the announcement of Wojtyla's name was audible
On the first day, neither of the leading Italian candidates could secure the 75 votes needed for victory.

The chimney of the Sistine Chapel was again sending up confusing signals - despite the chemicals added to the stove that were supposed to remove any doubt.

As a way out of the deadlock, the name of the Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was put forward by a number of influential non-Italians. He was conservative, charismatic, and a very healthy-looking 58.

Like Cardinal Luciani just a few weeks earlier, he was shaken by the realisation of what was happening to him. And on the evening of the second day, the smoke that emerged from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel was unmistakably white.

The papal tailor was waiting. He had already provided the Vatican with white outfits in different fittings. And with a needle and thread for any last-minute adjustments, he was ready to dress a pope of any size - small, medium or large.

A packed St Peter's Square was humming with anticipation. The doors on the balcony of the Basilica swung open and the announcement echoed from the loudspeakers: "Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum... habemus papam!" ("I announce to you a great joy... we have a pope!")

The shock that greeted the announcement of Wojtyla's name was audible. An initial stunned silence was followed by a babble of questions as it began to dawn on the huge crowd that the conclave had just elected the first non-Italian pope in four-and-a-half centuries. Not only that, but a Polish pope.

If the cardinals had wanted to send a message to the Communist world, they could hardly have done so in a more dramatic fashion.

The man from Krakow stepped out onto the balcony in his new papal vestments. Perhaps sensing the shock in the huge crowd below, he addressed them in Italian.

In addition to his new job as pope, he had also just become the Bishop of Rome and he needed to win their confidence.

He said he would rely on them to correct him if he made any mistakes in their language - our language, he corrected himself with a smile.

His obvious fluency in Italian seemed to reassure the crowd. And for those looking for signs about the future direction of the Church, his choice of name - John Paul II - suggested a papacy of continuity rather than change.

After his election in the Sistine Chapel, the new Pope sat alone, head in his hands, beneath Michelangelo's huge fresco of the Last Judgment. It shows Christ condemning the sinners to Hell, while the saved souls ascend to heaven.

Cardinal Basil Hume looked on, regarding Wojtyla with sympathy. "I felt desperately sad for the man," he recalled later. "But somebody has to carry this tremendous burden."


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