John Paul I: The September pope

This is the ninth in a series looking at the Church’s 12 most recent popes and the marks they’ve made on the Church. The series is appearing monthly throughout 2018.

When the cardinals gathered to choose a successor to Pope Paul VI, they wanted — not unreasonably — a smiling pope. In the person of Cardinal Albino Luciani, patriarch of Venice, they got one. He took the name John Paul I.

He was selected, according to Church historian Eamon Duffy, in the hopeful expectation that his cheerful grin and modest manner would “lift the gloom” that had descended on Pope Paul — a cerebral, sensitive man who’d grown old amid a swarm of problems, such as theological dissent and departures from the priesthood and religious life.

By contrast, Cardinal Luciani was viewed as a simple, good-humored bishop more nearly John XXIII than Paul VI in style. The new pontiff took the names of his two immediate predecessors as a sign of respect for both, while choosing as his papal motto the same one he’d had as a bishop — Humilitas.

Unfortunately, besides getting a pope with a great smile and a winning demeanor, the cardinals who elected him on Aug. 26, 1978 — apparently on the third or fourth ballot and on the conclave’s second day — unwittingly picked a man with health issues that only 33 days later would lead to his death, making his pontificate one of the shortest ever.

Today he is remembered largely for that famous smile. What he might have done as pope is unknown. Yet, here and there in his life and career are hints suggesting what the pontificate of John Paul I might have been like.

Early life

Born Oct. 17, 1912, in Forno di Canale (now, Canale d’Agordo), a village in northern Italy near Belluno, Albino Luciani was the oldest of four children in a family of modest means. His father was a bricklayer who often traveled to Switzerland to find work. When his son announced that he wanted to enter the seminary, the elder Luciani is said to have replied, “I hope that when you become a priest you will be on the side of the workers.”

Ordained in 1935, he became a professor and vice-rector of the Belluno seminary in 1937. Later he served as chancellor and then vicar general of the diocese. In 1947 he received a doctorate in theology from the Gregorian University in Rome after having been excused from the requirement of residing there.

He was in charge of catechesis for a Eucharistic congress held in Belluno in 1949 and drew on that experience in writing “Crumbs from the Catechism,” a book about teaching the faith to simple people.

Named bishop of Vittorio Veneto in December 1958 by Pope John, he took part in all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council. He also was an active member of the Italian bishops’ conference, serving on its doctrinal committee and, from 1972-75, as vice president.

On Dec. 15, 1969, Pope Paul named him patriarch of Venice, a position that had already been held twice in the 20th century by future popes (both of them now also canonized saints): Pius X, who served in Venice from 1893-1903, and John XXIII, from 1953-58. When Bishop Luciani became patriarch in 1969, few people are likely to have seen the unassuming new occupant of the office as a likely candidate to be the third to make the transition from Venice to Rome before the century was out.

In 1971 Paul VI selected him to attend the world Synod of Bishops held in October of that year. There he delivered an intervention in which he proposed that wealthy countries give 1 percent of their annual incomes to poor ones — “not as alms but as something that is owed” in light of their exploitation by the rich. In 1973, Pope Paul elevated him to the College of Cardinals.

Social issues

During his pre-papal years, Cardinal Luciani addressed many religious and social issues.

He sold a gold cross given him by Pope John XXIII, used the money to help children with disabilities, and encouraged his priests to do likewise.

Cardinal Luciani established family counseling clinics to help poor people deal with marital and financial problems.

He opposed the idea of worker priests (priests who would hold factory jobs alongside the workers they sought to evangelize), threatened disciplinary measures for priests who supported the communist party, and suspended some priests who endorsed the liberalization of divorce in Italy.

Pope John Paul I at a glance
“IMAGE'

◗ Born Albino Luciani on Oct. 17, 1912

He also supported Pope Paul’s encyclical Humanae Vitae condemning artificial birth control while taking a patient line with people who had trouble living up to it.

In 1978, when news of the birth of the first “test tube baby,” Louise Brown, electrified the world, he extended good wishes to the infant while at the same time upholding the moral norm against artificial insemination. “I do not find any valid reasons to deviate from this norm by declaring licit the separation of the transmission of life from the marriage act,” he said.

On women, Cardinal Luciani said that they are “admirable figures” in the Gospels, “more so than the apostles themselves.” But he added: “Through the will of Christ, women — in my judgment — carry out a different, complementary, and precious service of the Church, but they are not ‘possible priests.’ ... That does not do wrong to women.”

About religious freedom as Vatican II had endorsed it he said: “The choice of religious belief must be free. The freer and more earnest the choice, the more those that embrace the Faith will feel honored. These are rights, natural rights. Rights always come hand in hand with duties. The non-Catholics have the right to profess their religion and I have the duty to respect their right as a private citizen, as a priest, as a bishop, and as a state.”

He also wrote a series of popular essays relating faith to life, which were published in a monthly magazine. They were cast in the form of letters to famous people, both fictional and real-life, among them Pinocchio, Figaro, St. Teresa of Ávila, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, the German poet Goethe, King David and Jesus. The pieces were collected in 1976 in a book called “Illustrissimi” (Little, Brown and Co., $11.95) that appeared in an English translation after the author’s election as pope.

A brief papacy

On becoming pope, John Paul I laid out a six-point program for his pontificate: renew the Church by implementing the Second Vatican Council; complete the revision of the Code of Canon Law; remind Catholics of their duty to preach the Gospel; promote religious unity without compromising doctrine; foster dialogue; seek world peace and social justice.

It was a good plan. But he did not to live to see it carried out.His intention to do away with pomp and circumstance surrounding the papacy was clear from the start. Among other things, he was the first pope to refer to himself as “I” rather than “we” — a simple step that served to humanize the papacy as did his agreeable personality and famous smile.

Nevertheless in a Sept. 23 ceremony at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, the new holder of that office modestly confessed that he had “not yet ‘learned the job well.’” Now he never would.

He experienced severe pain several times during the day on Sept. 28 but refused to see a doctor. Around 5:30 a.m. the following morning, one of the papal apartment’s nun-housekeepers found him dead: in bed, nightstand light on, with reading material — perhaps the spiritual classic “The Imitation of Christ,” perhaps the text of a talk he was supposed to give that day — still in his hand. Death, it appears, was the result of a pulmonary embolism.

The people around him muffed the announcement by giving contradictory accounts with the apparent aim of being edifying. Wild rumors flew: Pope John Paul was killed by the KGB, the CIA, the mafia, officials of the Roman curia afraid of losing their jobs, the Freemasons.

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In 1984 a British journalist named David Yallop published a book called “In God’s Name” (Basic Books, $19.99) fingering curialists and Masons as perpetrators of the dastardly deed. Five years later, however, another British journalist, John Cornwell, published “A Thief in the Night: Life and Death in the Vatican,” (Random House Value Publishing, $4.99) a volume systematically exploding Yallop’s speculations but concluding that John Paul did indeed suffer from isolation and neglect in the Vatican.

The process that could lead one day to the Church’s formal recognition of Pope John Paul I as a saint began in 1990. Pending its result, words of Pope Benedict XVI sum up the consensus: “Let us treasure his example, striving to cultivate his same humility.”

Russell Shaw is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.