All the hoo-hah over the election of a new Pope takes me back to my schooldays, specifically 1978, when I was eight. Yes, I lived through the most recent Year Of Three Popes, which it turns out was the first one for 373 years. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive! Well, no, not really, but I do remember it all quite clearly, and the main reason for that was the (in hindsight) extreme churchiness of the school I went to at the time. It's funny how stuff that in hindsight appears terrifyingly devout and weird seemed perfectly normal at the time, and of course this is how religion operates - get 'em while they're young and don't know any better. The regular school confession sessions we had, for example, whereby a series of booths were set up round the perimeter of the school hall and classes trooped in one by one to confess to a series of made-up misdemeanours and be given a few Hail Marys as penance seem extraordinary to me now, but it was just part of the way things were at the time.
Pope Paul VI, who'd been in the job since 1963, died and was replaced by the little-known Italian Cardinal Albino Luciani, who broke with stuffy old tradition in a number of ways, not least in styling himself Pope John Paul I. Two names! This is what passes for revolution in the Catholic Church. He also broke with stuffy old tradition by croaking a mere 33 days into his papacy, in circumstances we'll come back to in a bit, and being replaced by rugged Polish ex-goalkeeper Karol Wojtyła aka John Paul II. I seem to recall a lot of frantic praying at school for God to guide the new Pope in his holy works, which basically seemed to involve going to lots of countries, kissing the tarmac, smiling a lot and patting children on the head.
My recollections of the sequence of events must be flawed, though, because all this happened between late August and mid-October 1978 (JPII was officially empoped on 16th October), and we were at that point in the middle of moving to Java for eighteen months (we travelled out around 20th September). So I'm not sure how we would have got wind of JPII's official pontiffication, still less seen any TV coverage. I do remember further excitement at the Pope's visit to Britain in 1982, by which time we were back in the country and I was at a different, though still pretty Goddy, school.
Anyway, the other thing of interest about the 1978 Popes is the various lurid conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Albino Luciani, most famously the ones gathered together in David Yallop's book In God's Name. As excellent and riveting as this is, it is quite hard to believe that the central claim is true (i.e. that Luciani was murdered), even though the trail of financial corruption and links between the Vatican Bank and some highly unsavoury people are all real. It's pretty much a universal rule that cock-up rather than conspiracy is a more likely explanation, and this case is no different. Or maybe that's just what The Man wants you to think?