Pope Paul VI

August 21, 1978 – “I propose to die poor” said Pope Paul VI in his last will and testament, handwritten in 1965 and then set aside, to be opened on his death. Last week, as the world’s Roman Catholics mourned their Pontiff, Paul’s final directive was released. It exemplified both the simplicity and the spirituality of the man. Paul left most of his modest possessions to the Holy See. He also made some requests. Referring to the ecumenical movement he did so much to foster, he urged: “The work of drawing closer to our separated brethren should continue with great understanding, with great patience, and with great love, but without deviating from the true Catholic doctrine.” Regarding his own funeral, he asked, “Let it be as simple as possible … The grave: I would like it to be in the real earth, with a simple covering indicating the place and inviting Christian piety. No monument for me.”

Last Saturday his wishes were honored. At his muted, dignified open-air requiem Mass in St. Peter’s Square there was no ornate catafalque. The ceremony had a certain grandeur nonetheless, flowing from those who came to pay homage: the more than 100,000 worshipers and the dignitaries from 104 nations, including Rosalynn Carter from the U.S., U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim and hosts of high government officials and diplomats. Leaders of the “separated brethren” also attended, led by retired Archbishop of Canterbury A. Michael Ramsey. A folio of the four Gospels lay open on the plain coffin as Carlo Cardinal Confalonieri, 85, read a brief address in Italian extolling the Pontiff’s life. Then 95 red-robed Cardinals concelebrated the Mass. After the anthem In Paradisium Conducant Te Angeli (May the Angels Lead You to Paradise), the coffin was taken to the crypt beneath St. Peter’s and placed in a newly prepared tomb. Above the applauding throng and the massed ranks of police, the sky had darkened into a gentle twilight.

Before he was stricken, Paul seemed to sense, somehow, that his life was nearing its end. Four weeks ago, as he left the Vatican for his annual summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo in the nearby Alban Hills, he told an aide: “We do not know if we will return and how we will return.” On the first day of August, the theme recurred. Driven to the wine-making hamlet of Frattocchio to visit the grave of an old friend, he said to a knot of onlookers: “We hope to meet him after death, which for us cannot be far away.” Five days later, on the Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ, the Pope was dead.

Despite Paul’s premonitions, despite his advanced age (80), despite the intense speculation that has gone on for several years about his possible successors, the church is never really ready for a papal death. All but its most essential activities came to a halt as attention focused on Paul’s funeral—and on the search for a new Pope. Late next week the conclave of Cardinals will begin balloting in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel to fill the empty throne that stands at the epicenter of Christian history. The number of papabili—possible Popes—is unusually large, and the final choice is as unpredictable as it is critical for the future of Roman Catholicism and its 683 million adherents.

Paul’s 15-year pontificate was a turbulent one by any standard. From the first, he was haunted by the enormous popularity of his predecessor, Pope John XXIII, and buffeted by often uncontrollable forces. Many of those forces were unleashed by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), convened by John and completed under Paul. The council dramatically modernized church policies in such areas as religious liberty, ecumenism, the liturgy and the role of the laity.

Paul thus inherited a church torn between excessive expectations of change and equally excessive resistance to change, and it fell to him to keep Roman Catholicism from being torn apart. As a Vatican analyst put it last week, “Paul found himself confronted with the avalanche of the council and had to stem it. The church ceased to progress, the spirit of the council was stopped. But the church can no longer pursue a mere holding action.”

Indeed, Paul’s successor will confront a galaxy of unsolved problems: the continuing resistance among Catholics to the church’s prohibition of artificial birth control; growing demands for a greater diffusion of power; the church’s role in promoting social justice; questions about priestly celibacy, the role of women; and the modernized liturgy.

Paul exhausted himself trying to cope with these issues, and his health had plagued him for years. On Friday, Aug. 4, his doctors ordered him confined to the large iron bed in his damask-walled room, overlooking extensive gardens. The cause was a flare-up of his arthrosis, a disease of the joints that particularly affected his knees. On Saturday Paul developed an acute bladder infection and, after a feverish night, his condition deteriorated. At 5:30 p.m. Sunday, his heart began to fail and his lungs to take on fluid. He was put in an oxygen tent and, at his request, his secretary, Monsignor Pasquale Macchi, administered the last rites, or Anointing of the Sick.

Paul summoned French Cardinal Jean Villot, 72, the camerlengo (chamberlain) he had appointed to administer the church between his own death and the election of a new Pope. While the others in the room retreated to a far side, Paul spoke privately for five or six minutes with Villot, who is also the Vatican Secretary of State. The Pope’s breathing grew more and more labored. At one point he said, “We have arrived at the end. We thank …” Then his voice trailed off. A little later, he asked those around him to “pray for me.” His last words were to the effect that the death of a Pope is like that of others, “but it can teach men something.” At 9:40 p.m. he died, so peacefully that his aides at first thought he had only fallen asleep.

Villot, following a centuries-old ritual, immediately called out the Pope’s baptismal name (Giovanni) three times, then pronounced the formula vere Papa mortuus est (truly the Pope is dead). He dispensed with the former tradition of tapping the dead Pontiff’s head three times with a small silver mallet. Minutes later a heavy chain was drawn across the great iron door of Castel Gandolfo, and church bells in Rome began their slow, measured death toll, signaling the news to the world.

With the Pope garbed in a red chasuble, slippers and gloves and a gold-and-white miter on his head, some 60,000 mourners filed past his body. Then, with more than 5,000 soldiers and police standing guard against Italy’s unpredictable terrorists, a hearse drove the body along the 15-mile route to St. Peter’s. For a time the body was sealed in its casket. But when Cardinals arriving in Rome voiced disappointment, it was again put on view—in front of the high altar, where only the Pope or his delegate may say Mass. (The body had to be injected with more formaldehyde because it was already decomposing in the late summer heat.)

Paul’s death came in the middle of the ferragosto, Italy’s traditional August vacation break, and Curial Cardinals were scattered everywhere. Cables went out to them and to all Cardinals around the globe, summoning them to Rome. Sebastiano Baggio, head of the Vatican Congregation of Bishops, had to fly in from Colombia, where he was helping prepare an October meeting of Latin American bishops. On Tuesday, in the presence of those red hats who had arrived in the Eternal City, Villot raised a hammer and smashed the Fisherman’s seal, inscribed with Paul’s name, that had been removed from the papal ring. The purpose of this traditional ritual is to prevent forgeries during the interim. Also that day Villot sealed up Paul’s private quarters, leaving his papers intact. (When Pope John’s diaries were released after the 1963 conclave, they showed that privately, he hoped Montini would succeed him. Paul, however, directed that all his personal papers be burned after his death.)

There was every indication that the conclave would be complex, difficult and possibly protracted. One Italian Cardinal who has been mentioned as a candidate joked that he was taking into the conclave “enough personal linen to last two months.” Even as the first wave of Cardinals assembled, rumors drifted out of the Vatican of heated arguments, particularly over Paul’s 1975 conclave decree, which directed that Cardinals age 80 and over could not vote for the new Pope. Among the 15 octogenarians thus excluded, several were trying to overturn the rule, in particular the archconservative Curialist Alfredo Ottaviani, 87, and Paulo Marella, 83.

The rules for the conclave itself are fixed in punctilious detail. After a Mass of the Holy Spirit, the electors will retire into the Apostolic Palace at about 7 p.m. on Aug. 25. Paul was so concerned with protecting secrecy that the customary aides to Cardinals, known as conclavists, will be banned. Each Cardinal will take a lengthy oath, swearing “inviolable secrecy about each and every matter concerning the election of the new Pontiff.” When the Cardinals are literally locked within the walls and the quarters screened for any bugging devices devices — another Pauline directive— the meeting will begin.

Electoral sessions are in the Sistine Chapel, though due to large number in attendance this time some electors must sit outside the ornate grille that divides the chapel in two. Though the rules allow for unanimous, spontaneous election “by inspiration,” no one expects that to occur. In election “by scrutiny,” with secret written ballots, a Pope must receive two-thirds of the votes plus one. Two ballots are taken in succession each morning, and two each afternoon. After each unsuccessful vote the ballots are burned along with damp straw; the black smoke tells dead waiting world that the church still has no Pope. If a dead lock develops, the Cardinals can decide unanimously to elect “by delegation,” choosing nine to 15 of their number to make the choice. At the moment the final decision comes, each Cardinal lowers the purple canopy over his chair, leaving one canopy unfurled — that over the new Pope. The final ballots are burned alone, and the white smoke announces success to those waiting outside.

Pius XII was chosen in a virtual snap election of less than 36 hours, John XXIII in five days, Paul in less than 48 hours. Though anything is possible, no comparable speed is expected this time — unless the weather plays a persuasive role. Even in the wilting heat and humidity of Rome in August, protocol demands that the Cardinals don violet cassocks topped with woolen capes. Their temporary living quarters (or “cells”) in the Apostolic Palace during the conclave lack air conditioning. Says one prelate: “Perhaps the heat will combine with divine revelation to help them reach a decision quickly.”

Working against a quick decision is the fact that the Sacred College of Cardinals has never been so large nor so diverse. John was selected by 51 Cardinals and Paul by 80. But Paul swelled the College to 130 and broadened representation to 51 nations. Of the 115 Cardinals eligible to vote, the Italians number but 26; there are only 30 from the rest of Europe. Thus the 59 non-Europeans who will be voting have a paper-thin majority—for the first time in history.

Though the U.S. has the second largest national bloc, its nine Cardinals are not expected to unite behind a single candidate or carry much collective weight. One of the nine,* John Wright, conservative prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, is recovering from surgery in Massachusetts and unable to attend. Other groupings: Latin America (including Puerto Rico), 20; Africa, twelve; Asia, eleven.

One question above all others hovers over the coming conclave: Will the next Pope be a non-Italian, as at least 50 of his 262 predecessors have been? The last Pope to be selected from beyond the Alps was the hapless Hollander Adrian VI, who served 20 months in 1522-23 while Luther’s rebellion raged about him.

Italy has produced so many Popes partly because the Supreme Pontiff also serves as the Bishop of Rome. He must not only lead a catholic (that is, universal) church, but he must also be simpatico with the people of Rome and of Italy, to whom he is spiritual father. Would Romans applaud as enthusiastically for a Pakistani or a Canadian as he was borne down the main aisle of St. Peter’s on the sedia gestatoria as they would for one of their own? A Vatican watcher points to the answer: “I don’t know of one Italian Cardinal who would feel happy voting for a foreigner.” Agrees W.A. Visser’t Hooft, founder of the World Council of Churches: “It would take a concerted conspiracy of the non-Italian Cardinals to force it through.”

What is more, the Pope has another task that can be daunting to a non-Italian: running the Vatican Curia, with its 1,200 ecclesiastical bureaucrats. Despite Paul’s infusion of foreigners at top levels, Italians still dominate the middle-management echelon, particularly in the all-powerful Secretariat of State. Some liberals calculate that only a fellow Italian can really control the Curia and complete Paul’s program of internationalization.

A major factor could be Italy’s long-running political crisis. Communists control Rome and most of Italy’s other major cities and are inching ever closer toward participation in the national government. For that reason, many analysts assume that a non-Italian is simply inconceivable. The crisis, however, cuts both ways. One American with Curial experience says that Italian bishops tell him that a non-Italian Pope is needed to shield the office from entanglement in no-win national disputes. Besides, remarks Jesuit James C. Carter (no kin), president of Loyola University of New Orleans, “the church is going to project a parochial image as long as we give the feeling there is something intrinsically Italian about it.”

The very fact that an African and an Argentine are even being mentioned as papabili is to the credit of Paul, the supposedly timid Pope. It was Paul who appointed the first black and Chicano bishops in the U.S. in this century, 19 black African and Asian Cardinals and, earlier this year, the first black archbishop in South Africa. He made unprecedented papal visitations to honor Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific islands. In these regions his landmark utterance was not the divisive 1968 Humanae vitae, the birth control encyclical that caused such an uproar in the West, but his 1967 Populorum progressio, a Catholic charter for social and economic righteousness.

Papal audience with President Richard Nixon to discuss the U.S. policy on Eastern Europe and the apartheid issue in Africa. (AP / Photo)

A worldwide survey by TIME correspondents last week showed that Paul’s increased attentiveness to areas beyond the Western democracies has been paralleled by increasing church vigor in those areas. In the First World, attendance at Mass fell dramatically and a shortage of priests afflicted nation after nation during Paul’s pontificate. Ideological acrimony still abounds. But Catholicism is reviving in Communist Eastern Europe, the Catholic population in Africa has grown 111% (to 52 million) during the Pauline era, and Latin America enjoys signs of resurgence after a difficult period. The reason? Perhaps squabbles over doctrine and church reform appear less important than the church’s eternal message where Mass-going Catholics may be shunted into undesirable jobs or where priests may be harassed for seeking to improve the lot of peasants.

In any case, Third World commentaries on Paul’s death were generally far warmer than those that appeared in the West, where the late Pope is widely seen as a leader who started out boldly but lost his nerve. During a British radio talk show, Broadcaster Ian Gilchrist offhandedly described Paul as a “silly old fool who caused misery to millions of gullible people.” He was promptly suspended. To influential Austrian Catholic Publisher Otto Schulmeister, Paul’s reign “seemed a pontificate of disintegration.” Even commentators friendly to Paul argued that his administration stagnated in the 1970s, and his implementation of Vatican II and its bold initiatives were supplanted by temporizing. No wonder. Beset by rancorous critics to his left and right, Paul had to struggle mightily merely to hold his church together. He succeeded, but in the process was branded overcautious, hesitant.

In the next pontificate, however, many Catholics now appear to be looking for more decisive leadership. “Whoever the Pope is, he’ll have to take some stronger positions, even if some are on the ‘right,’ ” says a leader of the left, Spain’s lay theologian Enrique Miret Magdalena. If, as many observers argue, this is a time to turn, the question remains: In which direction? The overarching issue in Roman Catholicism today is cohesion, or—to use an old-fashioned term—authority. It is a sign of the difficulties facing the next Pope that Catholic pundits differ widely on how authority should be used.

Pope Paul VI greets Catholic devotees in an open-air mass at the Yankee Stadium at the Bronx, New York.

Two American priests help define the poles. Richard McBrien, a much quoted Boston College theologian, thinks most Catholics with “credentials, intelligence and judgment” are liberals who will be lost to the church if a Pope tries to mollify the conservatives. Only a progressive Pope, he says, will restore the necessary “optimism and confidence.” Kenneth Baker, editor of the conservative Homiletic and Pastoral Review, pleads the opposite: “We need a Pope who overcomes the confusion over what it means to be a Catholic. The seminaries are a shambles. We need clear directives about what the church stands for, clear lines for dissent.” Baker and McBrien agree that a middle-of-the-roader will only enhance drift and decline.

Father John Navone, an American who teaches at the Jesuits’ Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, says such perplexities “no longer can be solved by a one-man fiat. The new Pope must avail himself of the wisdom of the church by calling a Vatican III to resolve the momentous doctrinal, disciplinary and moral problems.”

The authority question touches most of the major items on the next Pope’s crowded agenda. Among them:

Ending the crisis of vocation. The shortage of priests and nuns in the West is near the peril point in nation after nation, though there are signs that the exodus and the precipitous drop in new seminarians may both be bottoming out. In West Germany’s church, engorged though it is with $1.9 billion a year from public taxes, the Limburg diocese expects to have more lay missioners than priests running parishes by 1985. The major reason for the crunch is the rule of celibacy. The next Pope may be forced to re-examine that rule—and the role of women in the church as well.

Diffusing power. A favorite word of the Vatican II years was “collegiality,” referring to power sharing between the Pope and the 2,280 bishops across the world. Paul took the dramatic step of forming an international Synod of Bishops, then made it a forum without power. It met five times during his reign and never had any discernible effect on his thought or action. Last week a pillar of the conciliar generation, Belgium’s Leo-Jozef Cardinal Suenens, said that carrying out the duties of the papacy is “humanly impossible.” To ease the burden, he proposed a “synodal” Pope who would govern in close collaboration with the bishops.

Another variation on the theme is local autonomy. Even liberals ask: Why not let a parish use the outmoded Latin text if it prefers? They suggest that celibacy, too, might be made a matter of local—or regional—option. The Anglican Church last week approved a form of local option concerning the ordaining of women priests, and that action is likely to spur further debate among Catholics on the virtues of decentralized authority. Yet the very conclave that will elect the next Pope is, of course, the epitome of noncollegiality; Paul turned aside suggestions that even token Synod representatives be included. Father Herbert Ryan, a Los Angeles theologian, argues that Paul had good reason to distrust power sharing. The bishops counseled him privately that the explosive Humanae Vitae birth control encyclical would win gradual acceptance, and they were proved spectacularly wrong. Of course, given his ascetic nature, Paul might well have issued precisely the same encyclical even if the bishops had given him the opposite advice.

Seeking ecumenism. One promising prospect that Paul leaves behind is full communion with Eastern Orthodoxy, but that cannot occur unless the Orthodox bishops hold their hoped-for Great Synod, the first in a millennium, and decide that sufficient doctrinal unity exists. As for the Protestants, Methodist Theologian J. Robert Nelson of Boston University thinks intercommunion should be achievable within a decade, at least with Anglicans and Lutherans, if the new Pope is willing.

Revising canon law. This seemingly dry-as-dust topic is vital for everyday church life, because it affects everything from annulment processing to whether altar girls are permitted. The wholesale revision of the 1918 Code is the last major project from Vatican II that Paul leaves unfinished. For the Canon Law Society of America, at least, the sections so far proposed are “unacceptable in substance” because they are too distant from the realities of church life, and the revision process is “clouded in secrecy.” John Noonan of the University of California Law School, a canon law specialist, suggests that the new Pope start over from scratch.

Re-examining Ostpolitik. Well before Willy Brandt or Henry Kissinger, Popes John and Paul began exploring detente with Communism. Despite arduous efforts, the results are so ambiguous that the new Pontiff may be tempted to take a harder line. Catholic leaders in Poland, Hungary, and even in Czechoslovakia, where the church suffers from severe oppression, generally give Paul high marks for his supple blend of firmness and flexibility. Conservatives in West Germany and elsewhere are less happy about the opening to the Communist world.

Promoting justice. Is the church’s foremost role to serve the faith or to work for political and economic justice, or some balance between the two? Only weeks after the new Pope takes charge, that issue will be thrown into sharp focus when the Latin American bishops gather at Pueblo, Mexico. Their meeting may produce a dramatic confrontation between go-it-slow churchmen and a restive “liberation” camp that sees opposition to oppression as a Christian duty. A Pope like Argentina’s Eduardo Cardinal Pironio, an architect of the progressive bishops’ conference of a decade ago, could encourage major initiatives. The issue also arose last month, when the African bishops’ symposium issued moral denunciations of governments that are built upon lies, intolerance, political murders and “shameful enrichment of a small class at the expense of the broad masses.” Above all, a Pope must continue to exemplify the anguish of Western Christians over the suffering of the world’s poor —as Paul did so eloquently—whether or not he is able to find a new way to address the birth control problem.

These issues and many more besides will be on the minds of the Cardinals in conclave, but their overwhelming preoccupation will, of course, be with the secrecy-shrouded, ritual-encrusted process of choosing the next Vicar of Jesus Christ. According to one frequently heard scenario, the right and the left will knock each other off and a moderate will emerge as the winner—an Italian moderate. The trouble with that scenario is that two clearly defined blocs no longer exist. Paul made the Sacred College in his own image, and he shunned the extremes. The candidates form a mass of middle-readers with muted political coloration. There are no out-and-out progressives, but neither are there any papal possibilities in the mold of the fervently right-wing Ottaviani, who gave Pope John a run in 1958.

French Cardinal Jean Villot Chamberlain of the Holy See (2nd R) blesses cardinals at St. Peter's Basilica who will be entering the Sistine Chapel for the conclave to elect a successor to the Pope

That does not mean surprises can be ruled out. John, upon his election, was considered a “safe” Pope. Cardinals of traditionalist leanings may have been suffering in silence, waiting for this chance to organize, while others may privately have been nursing radical dreams.

There remains a factor that the oddsmakers in the betting parlors of London and the Vaticanologists in the trattorie of Rome cannot predict. Only one outside influence will be able to sway the Cardinal electors once they are sealed into their election quarters. Just before they vote for the first time, the Cardinals will recite the Veni Creator Spiritus: “Come, Holy Spirit, and from heaven direct on man the rays of your light…” The touch of the divine, bringing tantalizing possibilities, may once again make foolish the wisdom of the world.

*The only other prelate certain not to make the conclave is Bombay’s ailing Valerian Gracias, a traditionalist.