Pope John Paul I
John Paul I, seen here on the papal throne, is wearing an inexpensive silver pectoral cross, not the standard golden cross worn by Popes and his uncut hair, simply brushed back, was considered unusual. Papabile Cardinals typically enter conclaves carefully groomed in case they are elected.
John Paul I, (October 17, 1912—September 28, 1978), born Albino Luciani, was elected Pope on August 26, 1978 and died 33 days later on September 28, 1978, after one of the shortest reigns in papal history. Having died before he could make a legacy as a pope, he is best remembered for his friendliness and humility, qualities at that time not generally associated with popes.
Luciani was born in the Forno de Canale (now called Canale d'Agordo) in the Belluno region of northern Italy. He was educated in the minor and major seminaries of the diocese of Belluno and ordained a priest of the Roman Catholic Church on July 7, 1935. He later received a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He served as his diocese's seminary Vice-Rector from 1937 to 1947, also teaching students in the areas of dogmatic and moral theology, canon law and sacred art. In 1948, he was named pro-Vicar-General, in 1958 Vicar-General of that diocese, before being made Bishop of Vittorio Veneto in 1958 by Pope John XXIII. As bishop, he participated in all the sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). On December 15, 1969, he was appointed Patriarch of Venice by Pope Paul VI. Pope Paul raised him to the cardinalate on March 5, 1973.
The first Pope John Paul
A man who openly described himself as quiet, unassuming and modest, with a warm sense of humor, he was able, with a few words in his notable Angelus of August 27 (he had been elected on a Saturday, so it was just his first day as a pope), to impress the world with his natural friendliness.
The smiling pope
Pope John Paul I's inauguration in September 1978.
He was the first modern Pope to speak in the singular form, using "I" instead of "We," though his real speeches were often rewritten in more formal style (with the reinstatement of the royal 'we' in press releases and in L'Osservatore Romano) by traditionalist aides. He was the first Pope ever to "humanise" himself (he publicly admitted he had turned scarlet when Paul VI had named him the patriarch of Venice) and the first to refuse the sedia gestatoria until Vatican pressure convinced him of its need, in order to allow the faithful to see him (Vatican officials did not mention to him that they were also embarrassed by his rather awkward flat-footed walk, which they felt "unregal" and ungainly). He was the first to admit that the prospect of the papacy had daunted him to the point that other Cardinals had to encourage him to accept it. (He was reported to have told them in the Conclave, "may God forgive you for what you have done on my behalf" with the smile that became his trademark.) He was also the first to refuse the pomp and ceremony of the millennium-old traditional crowning ceremony and the Papal Tiara. (He did strongly suggest to his aides and staff that he believed he was unfit to be pope.) John Paul I gave the Church a precident sign and command of humility, which was also in his motto (Humilitas). Through his actions, John Paul emphasized the servant role of the Pope that is expressed in the Latin phrase Servus Servorum Dei - (The Servant of the Servants of God).
The August 1978 Conclave
He was elected at the third ballot of the Papal Conclave, and this quick choice has been seen as a sign of probably rapidly achieved unanimous consensus. The reason for the selection was generally believed to be linked to the severe divisions between rival camps within the College of Cardinals: between conservatives and Curialists supporting Giuseppe Cardinal Siri, who was fiercely opposed by liberals and supporters of Vatican II; between some Vatican II supporters and some Italian cardinals supporting Giovanni Cardinal Benelli, who was found opposition because of his 'autocratic' tendencies; and between the dwindling band of supporters of Sergio Cardinal Pignedoli, who was so confident that he was papabile that he went on a crash diet to fit the right size of white cassock when elected. Outside the Italians, now themselves a dwindling band within the increasingly internationalist College of Cardinals, were figures like Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, "the foreigner" whom John Paul I predicted would succeed him. (Luciani didn't call Wojtyla "the foreigner," but repeated that he had sat facing him in the Conclave. The seating plans in the Sistine Chapel for the August 1978 conclave showed that the man opposite Luciani was Wojtyla.)
Many, including the cardinals, expected a long conclave, deadlocked between the camps. Luciani was an easy compromise; a pastor more in the spirit of Vatican II than an austere intellectual, a man with little autocratic pretensions and so less unwelcome to some than Benelli (who in a double blow was on the brink of being made Secretary of State only to lose the appointment with John Paul I's death, and who came within a handful of votes of being elected pope in the October conclave, only to be overtaken by Wojtyla). And for Italian cardinals, determined not to 'lose' the papacy to a non-Italian for the first time in centuries and faced with other controversial Italian candidates, Luciani was an Italian with no baggage; no enemies created through a high profile career in the Curia, no controversial or radical statements or sermons, just a smiling gentle man, a pastor.
Pope John Paul I on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica
John Paul's warmth and smile
earned comparisons with his hero Pope John XXIII.
Who Albino Luciani wasn't was said to have been as important as who he was. Even before the conclave began, journalists covering the conclave for Vatican Radio noted increasing mention of his name, often from cardinals who barely knew him but wanted to find out more, not least 'what is the state of the man's health?' Had they known just how precarious his health was (his feet were so swollen he could not wear the shoes bought for him for the conclave) they might have looked elsewhere for Paul VI's successor. But they didn't. Hence, to his own horror and disbelief he was elected to the papacy.
The following days, Cardinals effectively (despite the prohibition of telling others about the Conclave) would have declared that with general great joy they had elected "God's candidate." Cardinal Pironio declared: "We were witnesses of a moral miracle." And later, Mother Teresa commented: "He has been the greatest gift of God. A sunray of God's love shining in the darkness of world."
As he himself declared, still in the famous Angelus, he had chosen this double name of "John Paul" (the first in the history of Papacy) as a thankful honour to both John XXIII, who had named him a bishop (and to whom he succeeded in Venice), and Paul VI, who named him Patriarch and a Cardinal, and whom he succeeded as pope.
New Pope, new thinking
Pope John Paul I being carried on the Sedia Gestatoria
Initially he declined to use it. The Vatican convinced him that without it the crowds couldn't see him.
In theology, he was commonly considered being on a conservative side, a public defender of the Humanę Vitę, Pope Paul VI's controversial encyclical on sexual mores (though he privately had urged Pope Paul in a document, prior to the encyclical's publication, to take a different stand.) He raised considerable worry within the Vatican when he met with representatives of the United Nations to discuss the issue of overpopulation in the Third World. Some critics of Pope Paul's encyclical Humanę Vitę expressed the hope that, in view of his opinions as expressed to Pope Paul, and his in depth discussion of issues relating to the population growth in the Third World, the new pontiff would issue a new encyclical 'adapting' Humanę Vitę. However his sudden death meant that what his plans were will never be known.
Among his first papal acts he intended preparing an encyclical to confirm the lines of Vatican Council II ("an extraordinary long-range historical event and of growth for the Church", he said) and to enforce the Church's discipline in the life of priests and faithful. In discipline he was a reformist, instead, and was the author of initiatives like the devolution of 1% of each church's entries in favor of the poor churches in the third world.
The behind the scenes tensions that existed among those in the Vatican aware of his original document on contraception to Pope Paul exploded when the pope expressed a certain consideration for contraception after his meeting with the United Nations delegation, resulting in a sort of censorship of his speeches on the pages of L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper.
Not up to the job?
John Paul may have impressed people by his personal warmth, however within the Vatican he was seen as an 'intellectual lightweight' not up to the responsibilities of the papacy. In the words of John Cornwell, "they treated him with condescension." (One senior cleric compared Luciani to the actor Peter Sellers.)1 Critics contrasted his sermons mentioning Pinocchio to the learned intellectual discourses of Pius XII or Paul VI. Visitors spoke of his isolation and loneliness, and the fact that he was the first pope in decades not to have had either a diplomatic (Pius XI and John XXIII) or Curial career (Pius XII and Paul VI). Pope John Paul was accused of being unable to handle the endless supply of documentation that was sent to him by Jean Cardinal Villot, the Secretary of State. The Pope at one stage panicked and became distraught when he let a loose-leaf top-secret document sent by Villot blow from his hands and down over the side of the roof garden onto Vatican rooftops, to the horror of onlookers. (The Vatican's fire service was called to retrieve the hundreds of pages.)
Luciani himself had severe doubts as to his suitability for the papacy, predicting that his reign would be short and he would be succeeded by "the foreigner." He repeatedly asked people, concerning his election by the College of Cardinals "why did they pick me?"
Pope John Paul I's papal Coat of Arms
His quick death, only 33 days after his election, caused widespread shock worldwide. The Vatican raised major issues over the handling of the events surrounding his death; it lied about who found the body (it claimed it was papal secretary John Magee; in fact it was later revealed that he was found by a nun in the Papal Household, Sister Vincenza, who had brought him some coffee), lied about the time, that personal property of his (his glasses, his will, documents he was working on when he died) disappeared from his bedroom and was never found. (In fact that was shown to be untrue. His possessions are in the possession of his sister's family.) It claimed he had been reading Thomas ą Kempis's Imitation of Christ. Conflicting stories were told as to his health. It was hinted that his ill-health was due to heavy smoking; in fact he never smoked. The impact of this mis-information was shown in a headline of the Irish Independent newspaper, 'THIRTY-THREE BRAVE DAYS' conveying the image of a weak and ill man physically unable to withstand the pressures of the papacy, and who was in effect killed by it.
The pope's body was embalmed within one day of his death. If the Vatican was a part of Italy, this would have broken Italian law. Wild rumours spread about events surrounding his death: how the death of a visiting prelate during an audience with the pope some days earlier was because the prelate had drunk 'poisoned coffee' prepared for the pope; yes a death had occurred, but there was no evidence of poison. Also of how he planned to dismiss senior Vatican officials over allegations of corruption; again no evidence exists of such a plan, though he was aware of questions about the conduct of the affairs of the Vatican Bank, having clashed with the bank over their sale of a church bank in Venice some years earlier. The sudden embalming raised suspicions that it had been done to prevent a post-mortem. However the Vatican insisted that a papal post-mortem was prohibited under Vatican law. This too was later revealed to be incorrect: in 1830 a post-mortem was carried out on the remains of Pope Pius VIII. It produced evidence that suggested Pius VIII may have been poisoned.
A Note of Trivia: John Paul's death is featured in the movie Godfather III and makes insinuations that he may have been murdered after discovering discrepancies in the Church funds. The year of his death is incorrect in the movie, however. It is documented as having happened in 1979, when he actually died in 1978.
The legacy of John Paul I
Pope John Paul I's tomb under St. Peter's Basilica
Pope John Paul I was not in office long enough to make any major practical changes within the Vatican or the Roman Catholic Church (except for his abandonment of the Papal Coronation). His impact was two-fold: his image as a warm, gentle, kind man captivated the world. The media in particular fell under his spell. A writer himself, he was regarded as a skilled communicator, and has left behind some writings. As Cardinal, Luciani wrote a book, called Illustrissimi, in which he penned letters to a wide collection of people, both historic and fictional, drawing parables with their experiences which he used in sermons. Among those still available are his letters to Jesus Christ, King David from the Bible, Figaro the Barber, Marie Theresa of Austria and Pinocchio. Others 'written to' included Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Christopher Marlowe.
John Paul II on his predecessor
- "What can we say of John Paul I? It seems to us that only yesterday he emerged from this assembly of ours to put on the papal robes--not a light weight. But what warmth of charity, nay, what "an abundant outpouring of love"--which came forth from in the few days of his ministry and which in his last Sunday address before the Angelus he desired should come upon the world. This is also confirmed by his wise instructions to the faithful who were present at his public audiences on faith, hope and love."
A number of campaigns have been launched for the canonization of Pope John Paul I. Miracles allegedly by him have been 'claimed' (it takes three miracles to make someone eligible for sainthood). However, the process of canonization has not formally begun within the Vatican.
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