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from issue no. 09 - 2003

Twenty-five years on from the conclave that chose Pope Luciani

Simple as an ordinary priest

Raúl Francisco Primatesta, born in 1919, Archbishop Emeritus of Cordoba (Argentina), cardinal “elector” in the last two conclaves, tells of a casual conversation begun outside an elevator with Albino Luciani who had just been made Pope: "I’m always stunned when I think back on it, the simple naturalness of that meeting". An interview

by Gianni Valente

Raúl Francisco Primatesta

Raúl Francisco Primatesta

Raúl Francisco Primatesta, born in 1919, Archbishop Emeritus of Cordoba (Argentina), cardinal “elector” in the last two conclaves, has a clear and precise memory of that summer of 1978 down to the details. And the details are important. His story of a casual conversation, off the cuff, begun outside an elevator with Albino Luciani just made pope, belies all the gossip about the awkward and worried man from the mountains, victim of his own “unfitness” for the task to which he had been called. The Argentine cardinal remembers well: even on the evening of his election Pope Luciani still had the buoyant tranquillity of those who know by experience that in similar formidable circumstances it is futile to agitate oneself and think of counting on one own strength. In short, it was almost a day like any other.

Your Eminence, do you by chance remember how you learned of the death of Paul VI?
RAÚL FRANCISCO PRIMATESTA: In early August 1978 I was in the mountains of my old diocese of San Rafael, in the province of Mendoza, for a few days holiday. I came back from a walk and they told me the Pope was dead.
You have been bishop since 1957. And you were created cardinal by Paul VI in the consistory of March 1973, the same one in which Albino Luciani became cardinal. What do you remember of Pope Montini?
PRIMATESTA: I met him and I spoke to him in some audiences. Paul VI was an example of spirituality and holiness. He had to lead the Church through all that very difficult time, after the Council, with the continual concern of getting through the many difficulties, of not clashing, of managing situations and seeing that conflicts didn’t split the Church. That continual strain, the concerns that gave no rest he was involved with as Pope, have perhaps overshadowed his personal holiness and spirituality, that should perhaps be made known as example. And that during audiences were communicated not so much in what was said as from heart to heart.
In the last years of his pontificate Paul VI seemed to have a dramatic perception of the situation of the Church.
PRIMATESTA: In 1967, with the Creed of the people of God, he reiterated in pregnant formulas the essential things of the faith. I hope there is a certain continuity between Pope Montini’s the Creed of the people of God and the compendium of the faith now being worked on along the lines of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The aim seems to me the same: to make accessible to the people of God the doctrine of the faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church published in 1992 sets it out steadfastly, but it’s not manageable for ordinary people.
When you arrived in Rome for the conclave, what atmosphere was there? Did the cardinals have a clear idea what there was to do?
PRIMATESTA: I kept strictly to the prescribed confidentiality in those days. I kept to myself. Before the conclave I didn’t take part in informal meetings of cardinals. To tell the truth I don’t even remember whether there were any similar meetings; at any event I wasn’t informed. I was a bishop from far-away America. I just tried to pray a little. Holding in mind the things that could help judgment before God.
In Rome there was Cardinal Pironio, your fellow-countryman, who was counted among the “popables”.
PRIMATESTA: Pironio was a companion from the seminary. He was a bit younger and certainly more saintly than me. In Argentina the newspapers said he was also a candidate. He was known since he was Prefect of the Congregation of the Religious, he was a valuable man. But I didn’t speak with him of these things. We were very close, but even with him I kept to the prescribed confidentiality.
According to unofficial reconstructions the Latin-Americans contributed to the rapidity of the election of Pope Luciani, together with cardinals of diverse backgrounds and sensibilities. How do you explain that widespread agreement?
PRIMATESTA: It was a rapid conclave. But if you ask me how many times we voted, I don’t remember. However, I believe that the person of Luciani proposed itself. Once one enters the mentality of the conclave, it was immediately clear to many that the papacy should go to him. It was a spontaneous coming together. There was no need of particular assessments or compromises on his name. His recognized value was all in his personality. I think it was really the hand of God that put this person before us for so brief a time. Maybe in that way God wanted to show us the way.
Which way?
PRIMATESTA: That of simplicity and closeness to the people. Going on along the line that was introduced with more force by Pope Roncalli. From what we saw, in the short time that he was given, Pope Luciani was very near to the good humoredness of John XXIII. A pastor faithful to the faith handed on by the apostles and precisely for that reason open and full of pastoral comprehension of the questions and problems of his contemporaries.
Paul VI and Cardinal Albino Luciani celebrating mass during the consistory 
of March 1973

Paul VI and Cardinal Albino Luciani celebrating mass during the consistory of March 1973

Do you have any particular memory of that day?
PRIMATESTA: I have a very special one. The very evening of his election, maybe after dinner, I took the elevator with him and other cardinals. We others were headed for the third floor, while Pope Luciani got off at the second. There and then it didn’t seem to me a nice thing that the newly elected Pope should go off all on his own. So the urge came to me to accompany him, out of reverence. Before the doors of the elevator closed I jumped out as well. And so, walking slowly along the corridors, we chatted for at least a quarter of an hour.
What did he talk about?
PRIMATESTA: He talked simply, like an ordinary priest. He asked me about Argentina and spoke to me of some of his relatives who had emigrated there and lived in the city of Rosario.
How did the new Pontiff seem to you in that conversation?
PRIMATESTA: I’m always stunned, when I think back, by the simple naturalness of that meeting. The man who had been Pope for a couple of hours, it was easy to imagine the agitation, the emotion. Yet in him there was no trace of that subtle stiffening with worry or that exaggeration that usually comes over people who’ve just been given an important post. He was there, as if it was nothing, speaking to me with all the simplicity in the world, of commonplace and familiar things, such as of his relatives who emigrated far away.
An impression that doesn’t match that of a Pope Luciani lost, embarrassed.
PRIMATESTA: The figure of Luciani was that of a saintly bishop, not of a naïve man. A man strong in the faith. Simple, close to simple people, but with confidence in faith and action.
Yet some people see in his death proof that he was a simpleton, crushed even physically under the burden of the role he’d been given.
PRIMATESTA: No, no. Pope Luciani well knew what he had to do. But God only allowed us a glimpse of him, as if to give us a blast of light.
How did you learn about his death?
PRIMATESTA: When they told me, it was gone midnight in my country. My reaction was like that of so many others. Incredulity in the face of a thing that seemed impossible, or an ugly joke. It was a hard blow; for me and for everybody. Something that gave a lot to think about. I returned to Rome in a tearing hurry and took part in the Pope’s funeral service.
And then came the second conclave of 1978.
PRIMATESTA: Wojtyla was best known for his work in the Secretariat of the Synod, for his speeches and work in the Synod sessions. I already knew him personally from the time of the Council because during their stay in Rome the Argentine and Polish bishops had had meetings together in Via delle Botteghe Oscure, at the Poles’ church. I remember that once, during the preparatory meetings for a synod, we had to go to the Vatican for an audience. I was going to take the bus, but he gave me a lift as far the courtyard of San Damaso, after a stop-off at his friend Monsignor Andrzej Maria Deskur.
As you see it, what led to the choice of Wojtyla after so many centuries of Italian popes?
PRIMATESTA: The issue of whether the pope should be Italian or from some other country didn’t come up much. It had to be a pope who would respond to the needs and problems of the Church, after Paul VI and the Council. Wojtyla came from a far Country, but nobody could underestimate his personality, known by many above all for his intense participation in the synods. Concern was with the exigencies of the presence of the Church in the world, of its role at a time when the world order was about to go through great changes.

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