Telling Time — Day 17

Cover of Time, September 11, 1978
Time Magazine,
September 11, 1978

Monday, Sept. 11, 1978

This week’s Time Magazine features a story which claims to unveil the factors and events which led the cardinals to elect Albino Luciani behind the locked conclave doors. Some of its details could only be known by the cardinals themselves. Yet, the cardinals each take a solemn oath to maintain “secrecy regarding everything that in any way relates to the election of the Roman Pontiff and regarding what occurs in the place of the election, directly or indirectly related to the results of the voting,” and “promise and swear not to break this secret in any way, either during or after the election of the new Pontiff, unless explicit authorization is granted by the same Pontiff…”

Pope John Paul I, as if to say, "I have no idea! I'm just as surprised as all of you!."

Pope John Paul I featured on the cover as if saying, “I have no idea! I’m just as surprised as you!”

This article, like every inside-the-conclave exposé, should be taken with a grain of salt. (Mutually-contradictory accounts seem to float to the surface after every conclave.) Yet I suppose some cardinals have more liberal conceptions of which conclave details are unrelated to the pope’s election and share these personal anecdotes with clear consciences. Articles like Time’s reinforce the old Roman jokes: “If something is a ‘pontifical secret’ it means that you can only tell one person at a time;” because, “In Rome, everything’s a mystery and nothing is secret.

As the counting went on, two Cardinals who had entered the conclave as favorites listened attentively. Both are highly placed in the Vatican’s powerful bureaucracy, the Curia: Sergio Pignedoli, who sat just to the right of the altar, and Sebastiano Baggio, who sat just to the left. But the name that kept resounding toward the shadowy ceiling of the chapel belonged to no seasoned veteran of the Curia. It belonged to a Cardinal who had never drafted documents from the dry heart of the Vatican at all, or served overseas in the papal diplomatic service. He had, in fact, only rarely been outside Italy in his life.

The waiting world was surprised, then pleased by the new pope, a lifelong pastor and teacher who seemed to show a rare blend of strength and humility, a fine gift for words, a reassuring balance between kindness and worldly practicality. But how had he come to be chosen? And why? Had some kind of secret combine among the Princes of the Church brought Luciani to the fore? Or a compromise that, despite formal assertions of happiness, really left nobody happy?

Often the answers to such questions have remained locked in mystery, protected by the wall of secrecy that attends the conclave, the vows of silence taken by the Cardinals as they enter and are sealed from the outside world. It is clear that Luciani came to power through no accident, but as a result of a spontaneous consensus that evolved from three agreements reached during the lengthy pre-conclave period that followed the death of Pope Paul VI on Aug. 6.

Probably half of the 111 Cardinal-electors went into the conclave still undecided. But most were fairly convinced that the pope would, once again, have to be an Italian. Even many Asians and Africans, whose numbers are growing and whose concerns often differ from their brother Cardinals in Europe and the New World, conceded that an Italian was needed to handle the delicate role the papacy still must play in Italy’s uncertain politics. Beyond that some Cardinals feared that any non-Italian might give a threatening new tilt to the Vatican.

The second consensus, resisted to the end by some members of the Curia, was that the church, whatever its farflung political and administrative problems, needed a pastoral pope. “It is one thing to interpret the faith and another to convey it to the people in the parishes,” said one ranking Curia prelate. “That is something that the bishops— whatever their theology— understand better than the Curialists at their little desks.”

Another Cardinal said, “I think all of us had agreed in our own minds before the conclave that we needed to go back to a humble, pastoral man, although we did not really consult each other about it. And then, when we went in, it became clear to us that this was what we wanted.”

On participant said there was a consensus that the new pope be “not obvious, and not controversial.” Luciani was a man “not actively disliked by anyone, and actively liked by everyone who really knew him.”

On the fourth vote, “no other name but Luciani’s was read out. There were a number of blank ballots…. But roughly ninety votes went to Luciani.”

The Camerlengo, his face wreathed in smiles, asked the ritual question, “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?” Luciani at first replied, “May God forgive you for what you have done in my regard.” Then he gave his assent, “Accepto.”

Those elected pope in the conclave can freely decline the office, in which case the balloting would continue. Therefore, I take Luciani’s remark as a playful jest, akin to saying, “You’re going to pay for this.”

The details about the final ballot’s voting are also interesting. I imagine that when one candidate appears on the verge of being chosen everyone feels a natural desire to be among those who elected him, or at least to not vote against him (and cast a blank vote.) An unanticipated, unanimous conclusion after just four ballots would jibe with several cardinals’ impressions (reported elsewhere) that the Holy Spirit was clearly at work.

What is an event from your life or our times in which you think the Holy Spirit was uncannily at work?

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