Pope John Paul I, an alternative to the “famous saint”
In August 1978, Cardinal Albino Luciani of Venice was elected 263rd bishop of Rome, taking the name Pope John Paul I. Known as a warm and compassionate man who particularly cared about the poor, he was quickly nicknamed the “smiling pope”. “He simplified the papal ceremony by abandoning the royal “we” in his public statements, refusing coronation with the papal tiara and discontinuing the use of the sedia gestatoriathe portable throne on which popes have been carried in public for over a thousand years.
Barely a month later, he was dead.
On September 4, Pope John Paul I will be beatified, bringing him one step closer to sainthood. Few Catholics under 50 remember him. Even older Catholics outside of Italy would struggle to remember more than the few facts mentioned above. His short pontificate, however, continues to fascinate, for it leaves Catholics wondering where he would have led the Church in those exciting and difficult years following the Second Vatican Council.
A mason’s son
Luciani was born in 1912 in Forno di Canale, a mountain village about 90 miles north of Venice. His mother, Bortola, was a devout Catholic. His father, Giovanni, a mason, was a socialist who distrusted the church. Nevertheless, when Luciani asked his father for permission to enter the seminary, Giovanni gave in. He only asked that, as a priest, his son take the side of the workers and the poor, “because that is what Christ has done”.
Ordained in 1935, Luciani was assigned to his local parish in Forno di Canale. His superiors noticed his gifts as a teacher and soon appointed him a religion instructor at a local school for minors. In 1937, he taught at the regional seminary of Belluno, where he was also vice-rector. During this period he completed his doctorate at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
His exposure to academic theology did not deprive him of his common touch. In 1949, he published a book, Catechetics at Briciole (Catechism in crumbs), which he dedicated to his mother, his “first catechist”. The book, which explains Catholic doctrine in simple terms, had been reprinted seven times by the time Luciani was elected pope.
In 1958, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, Patriarch of Venice, was elected Pope under the name of John XXIII. He appointed Luciani bishop of Vittorio Veneto, a diocese south of Belluno. Surprised by the appointment, Luciani noted in his first homily as bishop that “with me the Lord is again using his old system. He takes the little ones out of the mud of the streets. . . . He snatches others from their nets in the sea or in the lake, and makes them apostles. Luciani took the floor humility (humility) as an episcopal motto. He became well known for dressing simply and touring parishes and hospitals on a bicycle or in an old car.
Luciani’s leadership was quickly put to the test. In early 1962, two priests informed him that they had speculated in real estate and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Luciani told priests in his diocese that he would not go the usual route of seeking clerical exemption from the law. “We must not hide behind any kind of immunity,” he said. “In this scandal, there is a lesson for all of us. It’s that we must be a poor church.
Pope John XXIII called the first session of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Luciani attended all four sessions, which had a profound impact on him. Reflecting later on the contentious debate over religious freedom, Luciani recalled struggling with the Church’s historical view that “error had no right”. He noted that he had “researched the matter thoroughly and had come to the conclusion that we were completely wrong.”
Luciani was one of those bishops who hoped for a similar development of doctrine on the issue of artificial contraception. When Pope Paul VI forbade this possibility by publishing his encyclical Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth) in 1968, Luciani was clearly disappointed. In a pastoral letter to his diocese, he confessed that “in my heart I hoped that the difficulties could be overcome”. At the same time, Luciani called for “sincere adherence to the teaching of the pope” and asked his priests to show “evangelical kindness” to couples who struggled against it.
Luciani’s combination of loyalty, orthodoxy, and pastoral sensibility caught the attention of Pope Paul VI. When the Patriarch of Venice died in 1969, the pope called on Luciani to succeed him. True to form, Luciani discarded the traditional pomp associated with the installation of a new patriarch in favor of a simple welcoming ceremony.
The 1970s were not an easy time to be a Catholic bishop in Italy. Luciani’s priests in Venice were often drawn into movements for social change. Luciani willingly disciplined those whose public statements deviated from Church teaching. However, he often felt caught between those in the Church whom he saw as “stuck at Vatican I, if not the Council of Trent” and those who were “planning a radical rush to another council”.
Although considered by some to be a conservative, Luciani remained committed to the poor and working class. When strikes broke out in his diocese, he sometimes tried to mediate, but often ended up suffering criticism from employers and unions. At the 1971 synod of bishops, Luciani suggested that dioceses in wealthy countries donate 1% of their income to Vatican charities working in developing countries. It should be given, he said, “not as alms, but as something due. . . to compensate for the injustices committed by our consumerist world.
“May God forgive you for what you have done.”
On August 6, 1978, Pope Paul VI died of a heart attack. The conclave to select his successor met at the Vatican on August 25. Most reporters covering the conclave did not see Luciani as a leading candidate, but voters quickly rallied behind him. He obtained two-thirds of the necessary votes in the third ballot.
When the cardinals approached him to ask if he accepted his election, a stunned Luciani replied, “May God forgive you for what you have done.” Then he smiled – the first of many papal smiles – and gave his consent. He chose the name John Paul I, the first double name in 2,000-year papal history.
The simplicity and humility of the new Pope quickly won the hearts of Catholics in Italy and around the world. Compared to its predecessors, it was easy and informal. During his audiences, he sometimes invited children and conversed with them. The Italian faithful, no doubt finding his full papal name a bit stuffy, shortened it to “Gianpaolo”.
In private, the pope’s words sometimes took a more serious turn. His personal secretary, Father John Magee, later recalled that he often spoke of his death and his expectation that his papacy would be short. This was not just morbid speculation, as the pope had been taking medication for cardiovascular disease since his days as patriarch of Venice.
On September 28, after a busy day of meetings and phone calls, the pope experienced several bouts of chest pain. He refused medical help, insisting the pain would pass. When evening came, he was in good spirits and offered his staff his usual benediction: “Good night! See you tomorrow, God willing.
The next morning, the Pope’s governess, Sister Vincenza Taffarel, placed coffee on a tray outside her door. When she returned an hour later and found it intact, she cautiously entered the room. There she found him in his bed, dead during the night.
The shock and confusion that followed fueled speculation that he had been poisoned by an ever-changing roster of shadowy adversaries. The Vatican’s refusal to carry out an autopsy has undoubtedly added fuel to the fire. In the late 1970s, however, the death of a man from cardiovascular disease in his mid-sixties was hardly unusual. As more evidence about the pope’s medical history has emerged, conspiracy theories have fewer adherents.
Vatican journalist John L. Allen Jr. once observed that the short papacy of Pope John Paul I had something in common with the short presidency of John F. Kennedy. Both allow us to ask the question, “What could he have accomplished if he had lived?”
Reform-leaning Catholics suggest that, given his public pronouncements while Patriarch of Venice, he might have taken a different approach to the issue of artificial contraception than that of Pope John Paul II. But to suggest that Pope Paul VI’s immediate successor simply reversed one of his most dramatic decisions is certainly unrealistic.
More conservative Catholics note his growing willingness to criticize those he believed were taking the Church far beyond the vision of Vatican II. But nothing in the makeup of Pope John Paul I suggests that he would have had the iron will necessary to aggressively control the borders of Orthodoxy in the manner of his successor.
It is suspected that, like Pope Paul VI, he would have worked hard to maintain the vital center of the Church at a time when powerful forces seemed to be pulling it in different directions. It is precisely for this reason that he, like Pope Paul VI also, would have disappointed those who had greater certainty about the direction in which they wanted the Church to go.
For half a century, we have become accustomed to popes who are world leaders and world travelers. They articulate bold visions and offer wisdom to guide the journeys of individual Catholics and the church as a whole. It’s hard to imagine the humble and relatively provincial Pope John Paul I fitting easily into this mold. If raising him to the altars is to be anything more than one in a series of increasingly routine canonizations of recent popes, it may be a reminder that celebrity status is not the only model of the papacy. It might not be the healthiest either.
This article also appears in the September 2022 issue of US Catholic (vol. 87, no. 9, pages 29-31). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: National Archives (Nationaal Archief) of the Netherlands