4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
E. (Harry) Hernandez
- Published on Amazon.com
THE YEAR OF THREE POPES by Peter Hebblethwaite is a nonfiction work I read when it first came out--in 1979 when the world was reeling from having lived through a year in which two popes were successively elected after the death of Pope Paul VI (who is the 1st of the three popes). That actually took place in 1978, from August when Paul VI died to October when John Paul II was elected. Essentially this is a look back on the pontificate of Paul VI, his strengths plus natural weaknesses and the needs of the Catholic Church at the time. There are mini-bios of Paul and John Paul I, though rather bland. I was most fascinated with the exposition of Paul's true worth and ideas.
It dwells, but not really enough, on the story of the nearly forgotten John Paul I--regrettable since he deserves sainthood more than anyone at this point. The book does have good biographies and Hebblethwaite can be trusted with all the basic facts except the precise details of JP I's death. Then again, he only reported what we all heard back then, and Hebblethwaite never disappoints in his accuracy. This is nothing less than an excellent time capsule from 1978. Having reigned for 32 days (the erroneous count is always 33, Hebblethwaite or someone he quoted said 35, but it was 32, trust me) there just isn't much to say about Albino Luciani as pope. Only guesses about what he may have accomplished and hopes that got dashed.
I don't think Hebblethwaite goes deeply enough into Cardinal Luciani's days as Patriarch of Venice, and perhaps you'd do well to read David Yallop's mostly fictional thriller In God's Name (see my review). It has a good biography of Luciani at the beginning with the details Hebblethwaite missed, and is the only part where Yallop is factual.
Hebblethwaite addresses wonderfully the art of the conclave itself and gives a fine definition of the Curia, thought erroneously to be a small body of cardinals only. He writes of the fear, panic and confusion in the pending conclave that was held after John Paul I's sudden death. Hebblethwaite gives a good-and-dull account of Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, the Pole who would become Pope John Paul II. Aside from his rock-star qualities, there wasn't much Hebblethwaite could have written about him either. In a way it was like the brief about JP I: dashed hopes and guesses at a time when Wojtyla was fresh and new. John Paul II had a 100-days thing and this book addresses a little of that, but he'd been pope less than a year when this was published.
There seems to have been a misunderstanding, which I recall well, that JP II would carry out the progressive plans of his predecessor. So all Hebblethwaite could do was what we all did: hope. Turns out it was in vain, because what you will not get from this book yet you already know is the maddeningly disappointing papacy of John Paul II, the shattered hopes, the business-as-usual Medievalism which Hebblethwaite clearly never expected. It turned out that John Paul II was no Luciani!
This is a fascinating book to have in your library. Even the little tallies of the theoretical ballot that elected Luciani is fun to ponder. Mainly because Hebblethwaite recorded many things of value, forgotten things, since he was there--and it is a vitally fascinating chapter in world history. If only we had a Hebblethwaite on hand for the next big deal, the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis!
By the way, if you are interested in a good (and only) biopic of John Paul I, get Pope John Paul I: The Smile of God (see my review). I was amused by the way the film took from Hebblethwaite. For THE novel about an abdicated pope, read Morris West's thrilling fictional The Clowns of God (see my review), set in the 1980s, a few years after his The Shoes of the Fisherman (see my review). If you read West closely, you'll discover he was a real prophet about the future of the papacy.
Lastly, there is one funny fact I wish to point out: we are always in the era of three popes. The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, which includes the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, has its own pope. His lineage goes back much further than the Roman lineage, and has been far more stable. Then we have those goofy Old Catholics or whatever they call themselves, whose pope is named Pius XIII (and will surprises never cease, he is actually an antipope!). To sum that up:
1) "THE" pope is nothing but the bishop of Rome who usurped primacy over all Christendom. Not all Christendom agreed.
2) The Coptic Orthodox Church's papacy goes back further than the Roman--bearing in mind "Roman" does NOT mean "all the way back to Simon Peter". That is a skewed Catholic view, not real history.
3) The Copts established their pope-as-a-pope (who is nothing more than the Archbishop of Alexandria and the head of the Ethiopian Church) LONG before there actually was any such thing as the Bishop of Rome. For generations even the Bishop of Rome bowed (slightly) to the Coptic pope.