On that morning at the end of September in 1978, thirty-four years ago, a stunned world awoke to hear of the death of a pope. The world press announced that John Paul I had died suddenly during the night, barely a month—just 34 days—after ascending to the papal throne. At the time of his election on August 26, Cardinal Albino Luciani was little known outside of
. But during his brief time in
the See of Peter, he had captured the world’s heart with his simple, unfeigned
warmth and humility. He had already become known the world over as “The Smiling
Pope”. And that would be his legacy. Italy
The election of the diminutive, soft-spoken Cardinal Luciani to the papacy on that late summer day in 1978 was a surprise to almost everyone outside of the College of Cardinals. As crowds watched the tiny chimney connected to the stove inside St. Peter’s, where the ballots of each round of voting were burned, predictions of a long, drawn-out conclave seemed to be confirmed. If no candidate had been elected, damp straw would be added to the burning ballots to make the smoke turn black; white smoke would symbolize the election of a new pope. After the fourth ballot, however, the smoke that poured forth from the chimney seemed an ambiguous gray. Many assumed it was black, and so turned to leave. But when Cardinal Pericle Felici, dean of the College of Cardinals, stepped out of the great central door of St. Peter’s onto the balcony, all those present knew that, remarkably, a new pope had already been chosen on the very first day of balloting.
Luciani had taken the first double name in the history of the papacy: John Paul, the First,” he said-- because, he added, “there will soon be a ‘Second’.” He had chosen the name in honor of his two immediate predecessors, John XXIII, who had first named him a bishop, and Paul VI, who had named him a cardinal. It was a sign that Luciani would continue their policies, including the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
“I have neither Pope John’s wisdom of heart nor the preparation and culture of Pope Paul,” the new pope told the crowd gathered to hear him. “But I am now in their place, and so I must seek to serve the church. I hope you will help me with your prayers.”
For his papal motto, John Paul I chose a single word: Humilitas. Humility. Not because he personally excelled in that virtue, he said; but because it was the virtue he most wanted the church to exemplify during the time of his pontificate.
Luciani moved quickly to do away with some of the pomp that had surrounded the papacy. At his coronation (which he renamed his “installation”), he refused to wear the traditional Triple Crown, worn by popes for centuries. Instead, he put on a simple bishop’s miter. He shortened the ceremony, and moved it outside into St. Peter’s Square, so more could attend and see it. He refused to be carried in the sedia gestatoria—the portable throne of the popes, and instead walked to the ceremony himself. (Later, he would reluctantly agree to reinstating the sedia gestatoria because his short stature made it impossible for the assembled crowds to see him.)
He never moved too far, it seemed, from his simple origins in the mountains of northern
His mother, Bortola, was a nurse’s assistant; his father, Giovanni, was a bricklayer, who spent much of each year away from the family, as a migrant worker in
and Germany . His
mother was a devout Catholic—“very sweet, but very severe,” her son later
described her-- who led her children in daily prayers. His father was an ardent
socialist, who would often speak of the needs of the working class, and discuss
with his children the events of the day. Both wanted their children to study,
to learn, and to rise above the poverty into which they had been born. Austria
Albino was ordained to the priesthood in 1935, and spent two years in the parish before returning to the Belluno seminary as the vice-rector in 1937. When Mussolini and the Fascists took power in
the Luciani family joined the opposition. When the war came, and Mussolini
allied himself with Hitler, Albino’s younger brother, Edoardo, went underground
to fight with the anti-fascist partisans; his sister, Antonia, served as a
partisan courier in northern Italy .
For his part, Albino also assisted with the partisans efforts from his position
at the seminary in Belluno. “He wove the threads of Catholic resistance in our
town,” one resident said after the war. He hid Jews escaping from persecution
in Italy within
the walls of the seminary. He served as a go-between in negotiating the release
of local men from both Fascist and Communist prisons. Rome
When the war finally ended, Albino continued his work at the seminary. But during a visit to Belluno, the patriarch of
Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, realized that Luciani was a priest of extraordinary
gifts. When Cardinal Roncalli became Pope John XXIII in 1958, he attempted to
name Luciani bishop of the diocese of Vittorio Venice , in northern Veneto . Luciani
demurred, citing his lack of qualifications and his poor health (he had already
been hospitalized twice for tuberculosis). Pope John reassured him, and
guaranteed that the mountain air in Vittorio Italy was just the cure that Luciani
Driving to an early morning Mass one cold and rainy morning, he spotted a woman and her young son hurrying along, heads bent against the wind. When he asked where they were going, the woman said “To church,” where her son was scheduled to serve the Mass for the bishop; but now, she said, she was afraid they were going to be late.
When the procession later entered the back of church with Bishop Luciani, now vested, he spotted the woman in the congregation, and whispered to her, with a smile, “You see, we all got here on time.”
But there were problems at Vittorio
well. In 1962, two priests got involved in a scam that cost numerous small
investors their life savings—over 2 billion lire, tens of thousands of dollars.
Bishop Luciani called a meeting of his 400 priests, and announced that the diocese would repay every lire the priests had stolen. There would be no civil immunity for the priests, either, he emphasized; they would be punished to the full extent of the law (and both went to jail for several years). To repay the debt, he would sell all objects of worth in the diocesan treasury; one of the buildings owned by the diocese would be sold, as well. “In this scandal, there is lesson for us all,” he said. “We must be a poor and humble church.”
When Bishop Luciani became patriarch of
in 1969, his concern for the poor continued. He sold a gold cross and chain
that had been given to him by Pope John in order to donate the money to an
orphanage for handicapped children that was threatened with insolvency. As
president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, he proposed that wealthy dioceses
in the West should donate 1% of their annual income to poorer dioceses in
developing countries—not as charity, he said, “but as something owed, to
compensate for the injustice being committed by the consumer world against the
developing world.” Venice
Visiting hospitals around
on a weekly basis,
Luciani would charm the patients with his smiles and jokes; but the honor guard
of doctors, nurses, and administrators who insisted on following him around the
hospital irritated him greatly. In time, Bishop Luciani figured out that if he came
to the hospitals on Sunday evenings, there were fewer people around, and he
could see patients unbothered by his retinue. Venice
His door was always open, and his telephone rang constantly. When a priest called him at lunchtime, and was told by the nun who answered the phone to call back later, Luciani reproved her gently. From now on, he was to be interrupted for all calls, even at lunch, he said. If any Italian calls someone at , instead of eating lunch himself, the cardinal pointed out, it must really be an emergency!
When the 1978 conclave searched for a successor to Paul, the quiet, unassuming Luciani, a man of deep warmth, great learning, impeccable pastoral skills, and moderate theology, soon emerged as an obvious choice. He was “God’s candidate,”
’s Cardinal Basil Hume said
later. “Once it had happened, it seemed totally and entirely right… We felt as
though our hands were being guided as we wrote his name on the paper.” Britain
In accepting election to the papacy, an overwhelmed Luciani added to his colleague cardinals, “May God forgive you for what you have done on my behalf.” He would do what was required of him, he said. But he confided to close friends that he knew that his reign would be a short one.
Indeed, a little more than a month after his election, Pope John Paul I died in his sleep. The official cause of death was listed as a heart attack. But there was no autopsy, and conflicting accounts soon led to rumors, and conspiracy theories, and persistent charges that he had been murdered. Some said he was killed by liberals because he was too conservative; others said he was killed by conservatives because he was too liberal. Others said it was because he was going to expose deep corruption in the Vatican Bank. Others said that he was just a weak, sick man whose body gave out under the pressures of an overwhelming and demanding position.
“He was shown to us, not given,” a German archbishop named Joseph Ratzinger—later Pope Benedict XVI-- said in a homily following the death of John Paul I. He was like a comet who flashed briefly across the sky, lighting up the world and the church, if only for an instant, said Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri.
On the day of John Paul’s funeral, St. Peter’s Square was all but flooded by a steady, torrential downpour that just would not let up. The assembled thousands-- world celebrities, heads of state, common men and women-- were soaked to bone by the rains of heaven. The untrammeled grief of the people of
reminded many observers of the mourning that had accompanied the death of the
beloved John XXIII. Rome
But even in its mere 34 days, the papacy of John Paul I had touched the world deeply. His had been the smile of a saint. He had touched the world, and had given us just the barest glimpse of the sorriso di dio—the very smile of God. A smile we need to hold deep in our hearts in these difficult and troubled days.