Mourning the pope
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Posted April 5, 2005 at 10:27 a.m.

Secretary to three popes has vivid memories

By John L. Allen Jr.

Though Cardinal Karol Wojtyla's election as pope in October 1978 was experienced as a worldwide shock, a break with four and a half centuries of Italian popes, Bishop John Magee of Cloyne, Ireland, says it came as no surprise to at least one man -- John Paul II's immediate predecessor, John Paul I.

Magee served as secretary to Popes Paul VI, John Paul I, and, for four years, John Paul II. He spoke to NCR on April 4, after arriving in Rome to pay his respects to the final pope with whom he was on intimate terms.

Though Magee worked for John Paul I only 33 days, he retains vivid memories of the experience -- some of which come across as either mystical or spooky, depending on your point of view.

"Two nights before he died, he asked, 'Why did they select me?' " Magee recalled. "There was somebody much better than me. Paul VI had even indicated him as his successor."

Magee said he shrunk from asking whom he had in mind.

"He will come, for I am going," Magee recalled John Paul I as saying, at which point Magee said he changed the subject.

Another time, Magee said, a Vatican monsignor who was also a church historian wrote a note of congratulations to the new pope, but pointed out that as a technical matter he had erred in his choice of name. He could not be "John Paul I," the monsignor pointed out, until there was a "John Paul II." Until that time, his name should be simply "John Paul."

Magee asked the pope how he should respond.

"Thank him for his good wishes," John Paul I responded. "Then tell him that my name is 'John Paul I.' I will remain a short time, and a second one will come," Magee recalled the pope saying.

Another time, Magee said, John Paul I said that the "much better" choice, the man Paul VI had wanted as a successor, was sitting across from him during the conclave.

Later, when John Paul II appointed Magee as his master of ceremonies, Magee arrived at the office for a tour, and stopped before several cupboards marked "Conclave of 1978." He asked a sister what was inside, and she informed him that it was the office's records from the organization of the conclaves. They were locked, the sister said, and the key was in a safe. Only Magee now had the authority to open them.

He asked the sister to bring him the key.

Magee pulled out the records from the first conclave of 1978, the one that elected John Paul I, and found a large cardboard plaque with the seating chart from inside the conclave. Sure enough, he said, directly across from Cardinal Albino Luciani, later John Paul I, was Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II.

"It is an extraordinary story," Magee said of his own account. Reflecting for a moment about John Paul I, he said: "Wasn't he a saintly man?"

What does Magee make of the death of John Paul II?

Althought some have expressed distaste with how the pope's illness and suffering played out on the public stage, Magee said he found the pope's final months deeply inspirational.

"I hope that everybody will take a lesson," he said, "of how serenely, how calmly, John Paul approached that moment."

"He went out to the world," Magee said. "Now the world is coming to him," referring to the massive crowds gathering in Rome to pay their last respects and to take part in Friday's funeral Mass.

Since Magee was on intimate terms with three popes, what does he make of the theory that because John Paul II has appointed all but three of the 117 cardinals who will elect his successor, they will settle on a very similar pope. In his experience, were the popes he knew basically alike, or were they surprisingly different kinds of men?

"The mission is always the same," he said, "but individuals are different. Each of the popes I knew brought a wealth of talent, but different talents, to the task."

With Paul VI, Magee stressed his gentleness and extraordinary sensitivity.

"He was the first person in whom I could truly identify the person of Jesus Christ on earth today," Magee said. "He was so kind, so gentle, so giving of himself. He influenced my life in the most extraordinary way."

When Paul VI died, Magee said, he thought his service to the pope was over, and he intended to go to Africa to do missionary work. Instead, he said, John Paul I asked him to stay on.

"He was so humble," Magee said. "He had no idea he would be pope, and in fact he asked, 'Why did they make me pope?'" Two nights before he died, Magee said, the pope asked him, perhaps more rhetorically than anything else: "Why did they select me?"

"He was such a simple man," Magee said. "They called him 'the smiling pope,' and he was." Though Magee did not make the point, that impression stood in stark contrast with what was seen as the sad, almost gloomy final years of Paul VI.

Then, Magee said, with John Paul II the church got a pope who wanted to pursue "a worldwide mission," a man relentlessly driven to bring the gospel to every corner of the earth.

"John Paul II had a drive, a global vision," he said. "He tried to bring the whole world together." In that sense, Magee said, the ambitions of John Paul II were in a sense much vaster than his two predecessors. He was bolder, more fearless, more evangelical in his instincts.

"Popes are always different people, and I'm sure the next one will be as well," Magee said.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

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