Page 1, 13th October 1978

13th October 1978
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Page 1, 13th October 1978 — The Roman sky wept for John Paul I
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Organisations: Curia
People: John Paul, Ubi Lenin
Locations: Jerusalem, Venice, Rome

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The Roman sky wept for John Paul I

POPE JOHN PAUL was crowned in splendour in the bright and warming sunshine of a Roman September day: he was laid to rest in the Basilica of St Peter's under leaden skies with rain now drizzling, now beating, down on the heads of the assembled mourners.

At times the scene outside St Peter's took on an almost surrealist quality, with banks of umbrellas shielding the heads of some mourners and blocking the view of others while the 70 year old celebrant was exposed to the violence of the elements until a splendid canopy normally used for a purely decorative and symbolic function in the Corpus Christi procession was pressed into utilitarian service.

• As I strained to catch a final glimpse of the Pope's huge Cypress coffin as it was carried through the main door of St Peter's, I reflected, still with incredulity, that within the space of six weeks 1 had witnessed a whole papal cycle from the moment of that first joyful appearance of the balcony after his election, through the coronation to the funeral itself.

The grief of the Roman people at the loss of "our Pope", for so he had become in that brief space of time, was evident. Despite the downpour the Piazza and its approaches were three-quarters full.

The Romans undoubtedly felt that in Pope John Paul they had a "Pope of the People", and it is not surprising that some of the feeling should have been that of deprivation: not God but the mysterious "they" had taken him away.

This sentiment lay at the basis of the demand for an autopsy, but mercifully this entirely ceased once the funeral had taken place.

For weeks great crowds had been coming to St Peter's for the Wednesday and other audiences, of a size not seen in any living person's lifetime. There is no doubt that Pope John Paul had made an even greater impact on Rome than even Pope John. And he appeared to thrive upon it, receiving and giving strength in equal measure. One high Vatican official told me that shortly before he died the Pope had confided to him that the thought the bracing Roman air was much better for his health than that of Venice, and in a symbolic and practical gesture he threw open the windows of his apartments and stopped the airconditioning.

The Pope's particular gift was one of communication, and he succeeded in getting into touch with both simple and sophisticated people. As one young man remarked with surprise: "I'm able to understand everything he says".

The Pope's phenomenal success undoubtedly aroused jealousy and resentment in some people — not excluding, I am sorry to have to relate, some members of the Curia.

Their private comments were patronising and dismissive, but I think they underestimated their man and spoke not from detachment but from an uneasiness and fear that somehow a force beyond their control had been unleashed.

What the Pope said was not only simple but also arresting

and profound. When he talked of the value of "the great discipline of the Church" he was able in that phrase to command the assent of both conservatives and progressive alike.

When he declared that it was a mistake to believe that social liberation coincided with "salvation in Jesus Christ" and that Ubi Lenin ibi Jerusalem was not so, he was putting the social gospel in its right place amidst unchanging supernatural truths.

When he said that God was "not only our Father but our Mother" he was outpacing the most advanced theologians. When he said to the members of the Curia that he would have to look them up in the Annuario Pontificio he was putting them deftly in their right place and turning what looked like a weakness into a strength.

The greatness of Pope John Paul is shown by the impact he has had on his own succession. As one American cardinal declared on getting out of his jet: "The World has shown it wants a pastor and we must give them another".




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