Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, Dean Emeritus of the Sacred College, recalls the joy of the cardinals after the election of Pope Luciani
by Gianni Cardinale
«I’ve said it already many times and I’ll never say it often enough: Paul VI fills my memory and my heart of bishop and African. With great respect and affection we call him “Pope Paul VI the African”: he, the first successor of Peter to set foot on our continent. He did so in the summer of 1969 delivering a great message to us: the time has come when you can and must make an African Christianity, the responsibility is yours. Thus for us Africans his death was an immense blow». Eighty-one year old Cardinal Bernardin Gantin is always touched when he remembers the figure of Paul VI. And also when he recalls that of John Paul I. In 1978 he had been cardinal for a year and had held posts in the Roman Curia for seven, after being auxiliary from 1956 and Archbishop of Cotonou, in his native Benin from 1960. Later, from 1984 to 1998, he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Bishops. From 1993 to November 2002 he was Dean of the Sacred College. Currently he is Dean Emeritus and has returned to live in Africa. To invite him to recall that summer of 1978, 30Days interviewed him by telephone in Paris, where he was staying for a brief period of convalescence.
What do you remember of 6 August of twenty-five years ago when Pope Montini died?
Card. Gantin: I was in transit for New Caledonia where I was to celebrate high mass on the Assumption, 15 August. I was in Wellington, New Zealand, when Nuncio Angelo Acerbi gave me the terrible news in the morning. I can’t tell you how it hurt my heart. It was known that he was tired, but not to that point… I cancelled the rest of the trip immediately. Together with the Nuncio and the then Cardinal Reginald J. Delargey, I went to the Prime Minister to officially inform him of the Pope’s death. I shall never forget, never, the words of that man, a non-Catholic, who had been received in audience by Montini a short time before: « Paul VI is dead but I shall never forget my last visit to the Vatican, I still feel in my hands the warmth of the Pope’s heart». How beautiful!
Then you returned to Rome?
Card. Gantin: Immediately. I remember that at Fiumicino airport a pack of journalists was there to meet all the cardinals arriving from all over the world. One of them took hold of my suitcase and began to bombard me with questions, even asking me who I’d vote in the conclave! Obviously I answered that I didn’t know and that even if I had known I certainly wouldn’t have told them…
In Rome you took part in Montini’s funeral…
Card. Gantin: For me it was a moment of trepidation, of great prayer, of emotion, of communion with my African people: in 1971 Paul VI had done me the honor of calling me to collaborate with him in the government of the universal Church.
What can you tell us of that first conclave of 1978?
Card. Gantin: It was scorching. Especially in the accommodation of the Apostolic Palace. At the time there the very handsome Domus Sanctae Marthae, specially furbished for this purpose, didn’t exist. We came together in fear and trembling. But the Holy Spirit didn’t want to delay in giving us a successor to Paul VI. In giving us this saintly Pontiff from Venice, who told his driver before entering the conclave: “The car isn’t running well, take it for repairs, as soon as its ready we’ll go straight home”. Instead he was never to go back there. He sleeps still in the Basilica of St Peter’s.
Did you know Luciani already as Patriarch of Venice?
Card. Gantin: Not intimately. I had met him in Venice for a gathering of an ecumenical kind. He was a very affable man, simple, humble. I remember that he wanted to entertain all the participants to lunch even though there were a lot of us and we were rather cramped at table... I learned on that occasion that he had visited Africa, Burundi.
Did you exchange any words with him immediately after the election?
Card. Gantin: There was a dinner with all the cardinals and he went round to greet us table by table. I don’t remember who my three or four table companions were, but I remember that they were all very content.
You were the only one to receive a Curia nomination from John Paul I in his brief pontificate. On 4 September in fact Pope Luciani promoted you from Pro-president to President of the Pontifical Council «Cor Unum». Not only that, John Paul I received you in audience on the last day of his pontificate, 28 September.
Card. Gantin: Yes, it was the last audience granted to a head of department. There were four of us: the Pope, myself, the Secretary of «Iustitia et Pax», the Jesuit Roger Heckel, and the one from «Cor unum», the Dominican Henri de Riedmatten. The other three have all died, I’m the only one left from that audience. I remember that on that occasion Luciani told me that before coming to Rome for the conclave he had promised to go to Piombino Dese, a town in the diocese of Treviso, to visit the parish guided by Don Aldo Roma. Since it was impossible for him to keep his promise, he asked me to go in his place. I did so and from then on there has been a strong bond between me and Piombino Dese, of which I am an honorary citizen. A bond in memory of this Pope who enabled us to become acquainted.
How did you learn of the death of John Paul I?
Card. Gantin: I learned of it in fairly paradoxical fashion. Though I was a Vatican churchman, I learned about it from outside of Italy. It was around six thirty on the morning of 29 September, I was getting ready to go and say mass when a friend called me from Switzerland to tell me that the Pope had died. I was speechless. What, the Pope who received me yesterday morning is dead…
How did you find him in that audience?
Card. Gantin: Very well. It was he who shifted the chairs so we could take a photo in which all those present could be seen. I still keep that photo as a very precious thing. Nobody could have imagined that a few hours later he would have gone to eternity, with the Lord.
So you took part in the second conclave of that 1978. The books on it quote a phrase you are said to have spoken on the occasion: «The cardinals are stunned and seek what to do in the darkness»…
Card. Gantin: We were stunned by the death of John Paul I. They were moments of great dejection, we felt like orphans, very pained. But not without hope. The Holy Spirit that had helped us could not abandon us.
The Congregation of the Causes of the Saints has given its nulla osta for the process of Pope Luciani’s beatification…
Card. Gantin: I’m no longer in Rome. I can’t pronounce on it, not least because I was a member of that sacred Congregation. The process in these cases is very slow and prudent. But if had to express my thought I would point out that Luciani was a man who deserves to be proposed as model and example of total adherence to the will of God. Even if in the heart this obedience to the Lord causes pain, and a sense of littleness and weakness faced with the great responsibilities to which one may be called.
What can be the meaning of a brief pontificate like that of John Paul I?
Card. Gantin: It is the Lord who disposes everything. Men propose and Providence disposes. Certainly it has not been without meaning for the present and for the future. Brevity doesn’t prevent fruitfulness. That for me was a great lesson: let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit, not by our thought and our personal feeling.