THE YEAR OF THREE POPES by Pater 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 weaknesses and the needs of the Catholic Church at the time. 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. Having reigned for 32 days (the erroneous count is always 33, but it was 32, trust me) there just isn't much to say about Albino Luciani as pope.
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.
Hebblethwaite addresses the fear, panic and confusion in the pending conclave that must be held after John Paul I's sudden death. Hebblethwaite gives a good 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. 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.
So all Hebblethwaite could do was what we all did: hope.
This is a fascinating book to have in your library. Mainly because Hebblethwaite recorded many things of value, forgotten things, since he was there too, 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 his successor!
By the way, if you are interested in an excellent novel about an abdicated pope, read Morris West's The Clowns of God (see my review), set in the future 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 as well - 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. He hasn't been around too long, and is the first of his species. Voila! Three popes at any given time.
UPDATE: Folks, if the papacy confuses you, well, you're not alone. Read under my comments section and see one of the most stupid questions I have ever heard. Yet I will offer a totally off-subject but fair, accurate reply to that:
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, who is nothing more than the Archbishop of Alexandria and the head of the Ethiopian Church too, long before the Bishop of Rome was anything more than the crummy Bishop of Rome!
No more stupid questions? GOOD!!! Class dismissed!!