When it came to choosing a papal title, the relatively unknown Albino Luciani showed political instincts that may explain his rapid election. The native son of sleepy Canale D’Agordo, remote village in northern Italy’s Dolomite Mountains, opted for John Paul I as the name he will carry as Rome’s 263rd pontiff.

Pope John Paul’s tastes for nomenclature symbolize a merging of two divergent attitudes toward change within the Roman Catholic Church, as represented by his two immediate predecessors, Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI. Pope John was an unceasing agent of change, while Paul advocated controlled, gradual transition. Backers of each view were polarized.

That may be why earlier front runners cast in the mold of John or Paul lost out. And that may explain why the 65-year-old Luciani, whose record showed he could bridge the two factions, became the College of Cardinals’ choice.

At first view, John Paul I looked like a pope who would resemble Pope John’s charmingly simple, gregarious style, but Pope Paul’s firm traditionalism in faith and morals. But behind the balanced-equation image projected by his chosen name lies a personality much more complex, whose stamp on the office only time will reveal.

John Paul’s past points to an unpretentious, open pontificate that will identify with the daily problems of all classes, colors, and conditions of men. Alone among the Italian candidates, John Paul’s prior experience was almost entirely pastoral. He has served neither in the Curia (the church’s administration) nor in the Vatican’s diplomatic service, unlike any of his recent predecessors. This fact bode well for his election. The expanded number of progressive and moderate cardinals wanted a Vatican outsider; the traditionalists wanted ...

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