Why you should care

Because “jobs for life” don’t always last long.

Albino Luciani, a humble priest, made his way through the throngs gathered in Rome to pay tribute to the recently deceased Pope Paul VI. It wasn’t until Luciani was recognized as the cardinal of San Marco that he was ushered to kneel beside the dead pontiff.

Little did the 65-year-old know that he would soon be recognized the world over. The 15-year papacy of Paul VI had ended when the 80-year-old succumbed to a heart attack on Aug. 6, 1978, and the pastoral priest praying beside his body would soon become the most powerful man in the Catholic Church. His reign as Pope John Paul I would begin on Aug. 26, but it would be cut far shorter than anyone could have imagined, paving the way for a leader who would exert a far-reaching influence not only in the religious realm but in the political arena as well.

[John Paul II] really had an agenda of putting on the brakes in terms of church changes.

Dennis Doyle, University of Dayton

Paul VI’s papacy was spent trying to hold things together in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, which had caused rifts and confusion in the church, according to Dennis Doyle, a professor of religion at the University of Dayton. On one side were those who wanted priests to be able to marry, women to be ordained and artificial birth control to be an accepted method for family planning. More conservative forces, meanwhile, felt the church shouldn’t change at all, and Paul VI was the glue trying to keep the faithful from splintering during this divisive period. Adding to the friction was Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (1968), which offered what Doyle calls an “extremely contentious teaching” by forbidding the use of artificial means of contraception — an issue Vatican II had chosen not to rule upon.

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Pope John Paul I following his appointment, Sept. 1978.

Source Getty

Weeks after Paul VI’s death, 111 cardinals convened to choose his successor. Few would have guessed that Luciani would make the short list, but it quickly became clear, owing to the warring factions within the church, that a Vatican “insider could not be elected,” says Doyle. And so, on Aug. 26, the first day of the conclave, the cardinal was heard murmuring, “No, please no,” as the counting of ballots came within seven votes of his papacy, according to John Julius Norwich in Absolute Monarchs. The ever-modest Luciani reluctantly became Pope John Paul I and immediately brought “a change in tone and atmosphere” by being the first “to refuse the tiara,” Doyle says. Unlike others before him — and impacting every pontiff since — John Paul I was inaugurated, not coronated, forgoing the crown and the royal “we,” for “I.” This, says Cambridge University history professor John Pollard, was crucial because he was the “first person to seriously dismantle the monarchical trappings” of the church with a more direct, accessible papacy — a precursor to Pope Francis. And then, 33 days into his reign, John Paul I was found dead in bed — also the victim of a heart attack (conspiracy theories abound, and have been debunked).

Charged with naming a successor, the cardinals assembled for the second conclave in as many months. They still wanted an outsider and chose to cast their net even further, electing Karol Józef Wojtyła, the archbishop of Kraków, on the third day. The first non-Italian pope since 1522, he assumed the name of his predecessor to become Pope John Paul II.

While John Paul I would likely have followed the same path as Paul VI, Doyle says, John Paul II “really had an agenda of putting on the brakes in terms of church changes.” The new pope felt the essence of Vatican II was restoring the idea that the church is the mystical body of Christ. This pontiff wasn’t about to make changes inside the Catholic Church, but he was willing to take an ecumenical approach and extol social justice outside of it. So while he held firm on no female priests, for example, he was careful to promote women in the world.

Pope John Paul II also took bold strides into the political sphere, aligning with Ronald Reagan and pushing communist countries to re-evaluate their effectiveness in establishing social order — to such an extent that he is often credited with helping bring the Cold War to a close. The fact that you had a Polish pope “had some bearing on the way in which the Cold War came to an end,” says Pollard.

In just over two months in 1978, two huge disruptions rocked the world’s 700 million Catholics, who grieved and cheered as they watched the papacy lay down its crown, drape itself in a conservative mantle and step onto the world stage.

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