I was on my way to morning assembly when my friend Smith called out: “Oy, Thompson, did you hear that the Pope’s dead?” I knew most boys couldn’t care less about the Catholic Church – but the Pope had died weeks ago and we already had another one. So I rolled my eyes and suggested that he really ought to keep up with the news. “No, the new Pope’s dead!” said Smith triumphantly. He’d heard it on the radio. I still wasn’t convinced, but a shocked Brother Simon confirmed the news in assembly. Thirty-three days. Incredible.

I’ve been thinking about that surreal period because my cousin has kindly given me three copies of Time magazine from 1978. The cover stories are: “In Search of a Pope” (August 21); “The New Pope, John Paul I” (September 4); and “John Paul II” (October 30). Reading them has been quite a culture shock, especially for a magazine journalist. So many lucrative full-page ads – eight of them for cigarettes in one issue alone. Dozens of exquisitely written colour pieces, published without bylines: Time’s hacks were so spectacularly well paid that they didn’t care if their names were missing.

In the first issue, the Letter from the Publisher boasted that “three correspondents, plus a flock of stringers, had to overcome the time-honoured secrecy of the Vatican to gather the new data that supplemented the files on Paul’s possible successor, which had been building for three years.”

Much good it did them. The cover carries photographs of Cardinals Baggio, Willebrands, Bertoli, Pignedoli, Pironio – and an empty slot with a question mark. Inside, the lavish reporting further hedges its bets by including lots of second-rank Italian papabile and some foreigners, including Basil Hume. But there is no mention anywhere of the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Albino Luciani.

Two weeks later, Time was more prescient. One reason Luciani was chosen, it suggested, was that he was already frail at 65 and the cardinals were “uneasy at the prospect of a lengthy papacy”. The issue devoted to John Paul II is understandably wary of making predictions. But its portrait of Karol Wojtyła reads well. He was “no pushover”, having learned “the art of byzantine manoeuvre and long-range tactics”.

Liberation theologians hoped that the new Pope would be sympathetic to their programme – “but knowledgeable observers in Rome expect the opposite”. The Russians certainly sensed danger: in most Eastern bloc countries “there was a telling hiatus of several hours before press and radio broke the news”. But Peking, “which has yet to announce the moon landings”, jumped on the story.

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