This year 2018 will be 40th anniversary of death of Pope John I, this is why I would like to invite You – Dear Friends for a short thought about him, wishing You and myself this year that a smile will accompany us many times. His call was humilitas (humility). During his short pontificate, Pope John Paul I conquered the world with a smile. Pope Francis has just approved the decree on the heroism of his virtues. We can expect beatification this year.
John Paul I died on 28th September 1978, just 33 days after taking the papal office. He was less than 66 years old. The last one to see him was his personal secretary, Father John Magee at about 19.30. The Pope was tired and complained of chest pain, but he did not want to call a doctor. Before they said goodnight to each other, he assured Fr. John that he was feeling better. Every morning at 5.10 Sr. Vincenz Taffarel left a cup of espresso in front of the papal bedroom. The Pope would drink it on the way to the chapel. The coffee was intact this morning. An alarmed nun knocked at the door, but she did not get an answer. The Pope was dead. He died the previous day, most likely of a heart attack.
“May God forgive you for what you have done to me,” said the Pope elect to 110 cardinals shortly after the election. August 26 at 18.24 (1978) white smoke announced to the world the successful conclusion of the short conclave. An hour later, on the balcony of the Basilica of St. Peter appeared a new Pope who for the first time in the history of the Church assumed a double name: John Paul. Albino Luciani gave a signal in this way that he wants to follow the path of his predecessors. He wanted to speak to the assembled, but the papal ceremony chose that there was no such custom. He spoke only with his smile. He was later named “the pope of a smile”.
At the beginning of the pontificate, he was the first pope to resign from imposing the tiara. From that time, the “coronation” disappeared from the church dictionary, which was replaced with the words “inauguration of the pontificate” He proclaimed himself to set the following goals: to renew the Church by continuing to implement the Second Vatican Council, renew canon law, emphasize the proclamation of the Gospel, promote the unity of the Church, but without diluting the doctrine, promoting dialogue and encouraging the world to build peace and social justice. He managed to deliver 11 homilies and speeches, 4 Wednesday’s catecheses, 5 times he spoke on the Angel of the Lord (Angelus). In these few speeches he struck a simple, direct catechetical style. He dedicated the last Wednesday catechesis to the virtue of love. He based the considerations on the child’s prayer: “My God, I love You with all my heart, above all things, the Infinite Good and our eternal bliss, for love of you I love my neighbour as myself and forgive all resentments. Lord, make me always love You more.” The Holy Father compared love of God to the wonder of the Promised Land. He probably did not suspect that his journey was approaching its destination this subject, and delivered speeches. In 1969, Pope Paul VI transferred him from Veneto to Venice. In 1973 he became a cardinal.
What kind of shepherd was he? He served in the difficult times of the post-conciliar confusion. He was attached to traditional forms of piety and catechesis. He warned against revolutionary changes in the Church. He was distressed over the crisis of the hierarchical priesthood. He wrote in a letter to the priests: “After the Council the Church is to be renewed, as the house used to be renewed – some of the equipment will be replaced, the walls painted, the floors cleaned. Unfortunately, some would like to let everything go with smoke, without an answer to what this house can replace – in the name of a proclaimed love for the Church, which does not exist, but it is just the creation of the future or imagination.” Bishop Luciani emphasized the necessity of good catechesis. He was close to poor people, he initiated many charitable works, he was characterised by a simple style of living. But he also taught that “it is not the Church’s task to lead people to earthly paradise, to a perfect community.” The Church must take care of the poor, but it cannot narrow down its mission. “The Church is to lead to the inheritance of Heaven” – he emphasized. He often warned against Marxism, seeing in it the “weapon of disobedience” of the Christian faith. He valued obedience to the Church, especially to her teaching office. As a bishop, he required obedience.
We can find opinions that Luciani was a progressive who advocated the use of contraceptives. Some of his statements before the appearance of “Humanae vitae“ of Pope Paul VI show that he expected a change in the Church’s approach to this issue.
Albino Luciani came from a large family. Canale d’Agordo – this was his hometown (northern Italy). His father was a worker. He believed more in socialism than in God. His mother was a woman of deep faith and tempered the leftist aspirations of her husband. Albino was their firstborn son. He was born in 1912. He was so weak that the midwife baptized him at home immediately after birth. Albino owes his upbringing in the faith to his mother. Years later, as a bishop, he strongly emphasized the importance of religious education and good catechesis.
At the age of 11, Albino joined the lower seminary, then went to the higher in Belluno. He was ordained on 7th July 1935. He worked for 20 years in his native diocese, first as vicar, then vice-director of the seminary, and finally a curia employee. He took a PhD in dogmatic theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. He also wrote the catechism “Catechetica in briciole” (“Crumbs of Cathechism”), of which he had three renewed publications. The young priest was in favour of the traditional form of catechesis. He wrote: “In religion there are very important, delicate and difficult truths. What is wrong in this, that they are contained in precise formulas and are asked to be remembered by children? The following phases are better and natural: 1. The formula is well explained; 2. A formula taught by heart; 3. The formula is practiced.” Sounds old-fashioned? Before-conciliar? Yes, but it does not necessarily mean that there is something unwise about this approach. Today, after years of post-conciliar experiments, many catechists return to hastily abandoned principles.
The next 21 years of Albino Luciani‘s life filled the episcopal ministry. Pope John XXIII first appointed him a bishop in the diocese of Vittorio Veneto and personally ordained him in the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome on 27th December 1958. Luciani, as a bishop, participated in all the sessions of the Second Vatican Council. He did not play a significant role. He wrote modestly that he cannot match the “eagles of theology.” His great concern, however, was to convey the Council’s inspirations to the priests and the faithful of his diocese. He wrote letters on..
But as soon as Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical letter on the ethics of birth control, Luciani wrote a pastoral letter in which he called for the adoption of this magnificent and prophetic teaching. Some bishops in the West reacted differently.
The Patriarch of Venice often spoke in defence of family and marriage. During his episcopate in Italy, divorce was legalised, and abortion a few years later. The future Pope protested against these changes and called on Catholics to resist. In 1974, Italy held a referendum on divorce. In Venice, there were two Catholic student’s organizations in line with Marxism, which supported the right to divorce. The patriarch’s reaction was determined – he cancelled the Church assistant and forbade the priests to support these organisations. When Italy allowed abortion in 1978, Luciani reminded that no human rights can replace the law of God. He appealed: “True compassion in human hardships and difficulties is not to kill the one who is the fruit of the fall or human’s suffering, but to elevate, comfort, support, feel shame because of the weakness of human passions: kill him – never!”
Anyone wishing to get to know Pope John Paul I better, should reach for the book “Ilustrissimi. Letters to famous characters.” This is a collection of articles that appeared in the letter “Messagero di Sant Antonio”. They were in the form of letters to famous figures from history and literature (eg Dickens, Chesterton or Pinocchio), in which he addressed current problems. These texts reveal the Pope’s talent, perhaps not so much in writing as catechetical. Pope John Paul I often drew attention to the demoralization spread by the ’68 generation. And in a common sense, he asked people not to be crazy about the fashion promoted in the media.
What did John Paul I leave in his spiritual testament? Above all, the child’s joy of faith. And the pattern of a good-hearted shepherd, but firm in the name of love and truth. When he left Veneto’s Diocese for Venice’s Diocese, he said to the diocesans: “As a soul’s shepherd, I am convinced of this basic assumption: we cannot do good to someone if we do not love him first. I have always felt before God that I would fail to fulfil my task if I have not tried to love you sincerely … I tried to do it, however limited by my abilities, but honestly … “.
With love, friendship and prayers – Fr Marcin