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Pope John Paul I: The Smiling Saint

He’s been forgotten by most; let’s change that


More than 16 years after his death, there are few on earth who haven’t heard of Pope St. John Paul II; his 26 years as pope saw the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the dawn of a new millennium, and changes in society undreamed of when he was elected in October of 1978. Few today, however, remember the man that preceded him as Bishop of Rome and head of the Catholic Church, in no small part because his time as pope lasted a mere 33 days, the shortest reign in over 370 years. He should not be forgotten however, and in today’s Three Minutes With the Saints (which is closer to five minutes) we meet Albino Luciani, the man who was Pope John Paul I and who was affectionately called “the smiling Pope.”

Today, if Pope John Paul I is remembered for anything besides his 33-day pontificate it is for the erroneous belief that he was poisoned because he was going to reform the Vatican Curia and especially the practices of the Vatican Bank. This is a shame, because he is worth remembering for so many more reasons. Here are a few biographical facts and some trivia tidbits to increase your knowledge of this fine man.

Born on October 17, 1912 in Canale d’Agordo, Italy, he was the first pope born in the 20th century and the last to die in the 20th century. He was the first pope in history to take a double name, in honor of his two most recent predecessors: Pope St. John XXIII (who made him a bishop) and Pope St. Paul VI (who made him a cardinal). He is also, to date, the last Italian pope in a succession that began in 1523; as an Italian-American myself, I can only hope he won’t be the last.

Born into poverty in northern Italy, Albino Luciani was ordained a priest at the age of 22 and a bishop in 1958. He became the Patriarch of Venice in 1969, was made a cardinal in 1973, and became pope in 1978 following the death of Pope Paul VI. He was only 65 years old when he died of a heart attack on September 28, 1978. He was declared a Servant of God by Pope John Paul II in 2003, named Venerable by Pope Francis in 2017, and will be beatified in 2022.

Cardinal Luciani’s election as pope following the death of Paul VI was as much a shock to him as anyone, and was at least in part the result of two major contenders not being able to garner enough votes. He was in effect a compromise choice, a situation that fit his character quite well.

He quickly showed how seriously he took his papal motto, “humilitas” (humility). He was the first pope to forego a coronation ceremony, swapping the triple tiara for a shepherd’s staff; this shouldn’t have been a surprise from a man who rode around on a bicycle as bishop. After the final vote, he told his brother cardinals: “May God forgive you for what you have done.”

The reaction of the cardinals and others was quite different. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said: “He has been the greatest gift of God, a sunbeam of God’s love shining in the darkness of the world.” Many of the cardinals said they had elected “God’s candidate.” And following his death, Pope John Paul II chose his papal name to honor his predecessor.

Because of the brevity of his papacy, we have no encyclicals or other writings from his time as pope, but we know a lot about the man from the years before his election as well as during his all too brief pontificate. He was without question a warm, gentle, and kind man, much more like the gregarious John XXIII than the more formal Paul VI. He was also no intellectual lightweight as some believed; he held a doctorate in theology and loved authors from Dickens to Goethe to Chesterton. His personal holiness was exemplary and well known. It has been said that when he met with people at the Vatican his first question was: “How can I serve you?”

And oh my, that smile. It captivated the world, including both the cynical media of the 1970s and the too-cool-for-school 12-year-old I was then. Papa Luciani, as the Italians lovingly refer to him now, had a dream according to his niece. He dreamed of having a parish in the lake region of northern Italy where he would bring with him his mother and father, because he said his mother would be happy to be in a house on the lake. It was a simple dream of a man who was himself simple in the best possible sense of the word.

Obviously, the main reason people tend to overlook Pope John Paul I, besides his brief time as pope, is that he was succeeded by Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, one of the greatest popes of the past 500 years. It’s hard to follow a legend, and apparently hard to go just before one as well. But even John Paul II was impacted by John Paul I, saying of him in his first address as pope: “what a warmth of charity, nay, what an abundant outpouring of love, which came forth from him in his few days of his ministry.”

The Church is waiting on the confirmation of one more miracle as the result of his intercession before officially declaring John Paul I a saint. For me, he already is. He “got” what a saint is better than most, as he showed in this quote from a piece in America magazine:

“Lived holiness is very much more widespread than officially proclaimed holiness. Coming into Paradise, we will probably find mothers, workers, professional people, and students set higher than the official saints we venerate on earth.”

That insight, that humility, that smile is summed up in a quip he made following his election: “If someone had told me I would be pope one day, I would have studied harder.” He studied more than enough, and left a legacy that we should study, and emulate, ourselves. Most of all, we should never, ever, forget him.

Image: Vatican News


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