Albino Luciani: The Smiling Pope, by Fr Christopher OGS

For many in the late Twentieth Century the historically defining question for a generation was, “Where were you when you heard that Princess Diana had died?”; for an earlier generation the question was, “Where were you when you heard that President Kennedy had been shot?”; but for me that moment was as a schoolboy of nearly twelve when I was stopped in my tracks in the streets of my home town on Friday 29th September 1978 reading a newspaper billboard, heavily bordered in black, declaring the awful and unbelievable words “New Pope Dead”.

I can still remember the shock, the disbelief, and the feeling that something terrible had happened and, above all, that it could not be true. In parishes like mine at home we were very used to praying for the pope at Mass (less so for the Archbishop of Canterbury, I’m afraid!) and for all of my younger years that man had been the ageing and rather distant figure of Pope Paul VI.

During that summer holiday from school in 1978, Pope Paul had finally passed into Glory on the Feast of the Transfiguration aged 80. Then there had been the anticipation and excitement of what was “my first Conclave” beamed to us through our newly acquired colour television resulting in the unexpected election of the one who became known as “The Pope of the September Smile”. But, within only a month (actually thirty three days, one day for each of the years of Our Blessed Lord’s life) it was all over and I can still remember the sadness (and the tears) that this most holy of men had gone from us so terribly soon. But who was this man who had gone so soon?

A Biographical Sketch

The man who became Pope John Paul I, Albino Luciani, was born on 17 October 1912 in Forno di Canale (now Canale d’Agordo) in Belluno, a province of the Veneto region in Northern Italy. He was the son of Giovanni Luciani (c.1872–1952), a bricklayer, and Bortola Tancon (c.1879–1947). Albino was followed by two brothers, Federico (1915–1916) and Edoardo (1917–2008), and a sister, Antonia (1920–2010). He was baptised on the day he was born by the midwife because he was considered to be in danger of death. The solemn rites of baptism were formalised in the parish church two days later.

It was said that Luciani was a restless child, ever on the go. In 1922, aged 10, he was awestruck when a Capuchin friar came to his village to preach the Lenten sermons. From that moment, he decided that he wanted to become a priest and went to his father to ask for his permission. His father, in spite of his deep Socialist and anti-clerical feelings, agreed and said to him: “I hope that when you become a priest you will be on the side of the workers, for Christ Himself would have been on their side”.

Luciani entered the minor seminary of Feltre in 1923, where his teachers found him “rather too lively”, and later went on to the major seminary of Belluno. During his stay at Belluno, he attempted to follow his heart to join the Jesuits. However, he was denied by the seminary’s rector, Bishop Giosuè Cattarossi.

Luciani was eventually ordained a priest on 7 July 1935, but not before having to obtain a special Indult from the Pope as he was fifteen months too young according to Canon law. Luciani then served as a curate in his own native Forno de Canale before becoming a professor and the vice-rector of his own Belluno seminary in 1937. Among the different subjects, he taught dogmatic and moral theology, Canon Law and sacred art; he was always known for his artistic sensibilities.

At the height of the second World War in 1941, Luciani started to work on a Doctorate of Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University. This required at least one year’s attendance in Rome. However, the Belluno seminary’s superiors wanted him to continue teaching during his doctoral studies. The situation was resolved by a special dispensation by Pope Pius XII on 27 March 1941. His thesis (The origin of the human soul according to Antonion Rosmini) very largely attacked Rosmini’s theology and earned him his doctorate magna cum laude in 1947. According to Rosmini, theology deals primarily with the Absolute Being, namely God. He is furthermore of the opinion that humankind does not have the ability to come to a full knowledge of the perfect Being (God). The perfect Being in His totality and completeness thus transcends human knowledge or existence.

In 1947, Luciani was named chancellor to Bishop Girolamo Bortignon (OFM Cap), of Belluno. In 1954, he was named the vicar general for the Belluno diocese. Luciani was nominated for the position of bishop several times, but he was passed over each time due to his poor health, stature, and resigned appearance. In 1949, he published a book titled Catechesis in Crumbs. This book, his first, was about teaching the truths of the faith in a simple way, directly and comprehensible to all people and most especially to children.

On 15 December 1958, Luciani was appointed Bishop of Vittorio Veneto by Pope John XXIII. He received his episcopal consecration later that month from Pope John XXIII himself. Pope John had met Luciani in 1957 and had been taken by him on a tour of the Diocese while Roncalli was still Patriarch of Venice; he said that he had learnt much about the nature of this faithful priest in their train journeys. In typically self-effacing style, Luciani later said this was not really possible, as the patriarch had never paused at all in their conversations!

Luciani took possession of the diocese on 11 January 1959, taking Humilitas (Humility) as his episcopal motto as had St Charles Borromeo (his great hero) before him. In his first address to his new diocese, he told the people that he sought to be “a bishop who is a teacher and a servant”. These were heady days in the Church as, as a bishop, he participated in all the sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). On 18 April 1962 (six months before the Council) , Luciani issued a pastoral letter, entitled “Notes on the Council“, to alert the faithful to the structure of the proceedings and the overall purpose of the upcoming Ecumenical gathering, chiefly, the doctrinal and practical issues. The good folk of his small diocese were better prepared for what was to come than were most catholic laity!

In 1966 ever eager to learn of God’s Will, Luciani visited Burundi in East Africa and felt a particular draw to that continent, being one of the first bishops in Europe to heed the call of Pope Paul VI to release more priests for the African Missions; these were the pre-Conciliar days of plentiful vocations before the defections following the Vatican Council.

On 15 December 1969, Luciani was appointed the new patriarch of Venice by Pope Paul VI, taking possession of his new archdiocese the following February. He did not permit the traditional festival and procession of gondolas which had traditionally greeted a new Patriarch and lived only in a small flat in the palace in St Mark’s Square. He also very rarely wore red and travelled about as a simple priest.

At the Synod of Bishops held in Rome in 1971, to which he was personally invited by the Pope, Luciani suggested to the bishops assembled that dioceses in countries that were heavily industrialised should relinquish around 1% of all their income to Third World nations to be given “not as alms, but something that is owed. Owed to compensate for the injustices that our consumer-oriented world is committing towards the ‘world on the way to development’ and to, in some way, make reparation for social sin, of which we must become aware”. Pope Paul VI created Luciani the Cardinal-Priest of San Marco on 5 March 1973; thus he was now a potential new pope (papabile) whenever Pope Paul died.

In 1975, Luciani visited Brazil where he met with members of the clergy, including their Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider (for whom he voted in the August 1978 Concave). This trip had significant effects on his health as when he returned to Italy, he suffered an embolus in his right eye showing alarming early signs of possible problems with his circulation. His health had been deemed “fragile” in his youth and it is likely that he had at least two doses of tuberculosis in his younger days.

Luciani also visited Fatima just a few months later. While there, he met with Sister Lucia dos Santos, the sole surviving visionary of three children who in 1917 claimed to see apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary (revered in this form under the title Our Lady of Fatima). When Cardinal Luciani met Sister Lucia, she referred to him as “Holy Father”. This greeting shocked the humble cardinal; but by many it was later seen as a prophetic ourburst.

In January 1976, he published Illustrissimi (“To the Illustrious Ones”), a collection of letters penned by him in previous years, whimsically addressed to historical and literary figures such as Dickens, G.K. Chesterton, Maria Theresa of Austria, Saint Teresa of Avila, Goethe,  Figaro, Pinocchio, the Pickwick Club, King David, and finally Jesus Himself; it remains a great treasure store of his personal wisdom and catechesis; I recommend it to you highly.

In 1976, to further demonstrate his genuine humility, Luciani sold a gold cross and pectoral gold chain that Pope John XXIII had given to him (which once belonged to Pope Pius XII before him) to raise money for disabled children. He also urged fellow priests in Venice to sell their valuables to contribute to this cause and as a way for them to live more simply and humbly. As Patriarch of Venice, Luciani established family counselling clinics to assist the poor in coping with marital, financial and sexual problems.

As we have seen, Pope Paul VI died on 6 August 1978, ending a reign of fifteen years. Luciani was summoned to Rome for the conclave to elect the new pope. Luciani was not really considered papabile, though mentioned upon occasion in several newspapers. However, a few cardinals approached him with their opinion that he would make a fine pontiff.

Before the papal conclave that elected him, he expressed his desire not to be elected, telling those close to him that he would decline the papacy if elected, but, upon the cardinals electing him, he felt an obligation to say yes. So it was, Luciani was elected on the fourth ballot of the conclave. He had previously said to his secretary, Father Diego Lorenzi and Father Prospero Grech (later a cardinal himself), that he would decline the papacy if elected, and that he intended to vote for his friend Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider, whom he had met in Brazil. Cardinal Jaime Sin of the Philippines told him: “You will be the new pope.”

However, when he was asked by Cardinal Jean-Marie Villot if he accepted his election, Luciani replied, “May God forgive you for what you have done in my regard”, but accepted the election (he was quoting St Bernard of Clairvaux’s comments to a fellow monk who had been elected as Pope Eugene III). After his election, when Cardinal Sin paid him homage, the new pope said: “You were a prophet, but my reign will be a short one“.

On the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica, protodeacon Cardinal Pericle Felici announced that the cardinals had elected Albino Luciani, Patriarch of Venice, who had chosen the name Pope John Paul I.  It was the first time that a pope chose a double name. He later explained that the double name was taken gratefully to honour his two immediate predecessors: John XXIII, who had named him a bishop, and Paul VI, who had named him Patriarch of Venice and Cardinal.  He was also the first pope to designate himself “the First” with the name. (Pope Francis, elected in 2013, also took a previously unused papal name but chose not to be called “the First”.)

Pope John Paul I official portrait 1978

During the days following the conclave, the cardinals were generally elated at the reaction to Pope John Paul I, some of them happily saying that they had elected “God’s candidate”. Argentine Cardinal Eduardo Francisco Pironio stated, “We were witnesses of a moral miracle.” Mother Teresa of Calcutta, commenting about the new pope, “He has been the greatest gift of God, a sun beam of God’s love shining in the darkness of the world.” British Cardinal Basil Hume declared: “Once it had happened, it seemed totally and entirely right …We felt as if our hands were being guided as we wrote his name on the paper”.

After he became pope, Luciani set six plans down which would dictate and mark out his pontificate if he had lived, heard in his first Angelus message the day after his election:

To renew the church through the policies implemented by Vatican II.

To revise canon law.

To remind the church of its duty, primarily to preach the Gospel.

To promote church unity without watering down doctrine.

To promote dialogue.

To encourage world peace and social justice.

After his election, John Paul I quickly made several decisions that were widely seen to “humanise” the office of the pope. He was the first pope to speak in the singular form, using ‘I’ instead of the royal we. However, the official records of his speeches were often rewritten in a more formal style by aides, who reinstated the royal we in press releases and L’Osservatore Romano. He initially refused to use the sedia gestatoria (the elevated chair) until others convinced him of its need to allow himself to be seen by crowds. He was, though, the last pope to use it. He was the first pope to refuse to be crowned with the triple tiara. Instead of a coronation, he simply inaugurated his papacy with a “papal inauguration” where he received the papal pallium as the ancient symbol of his position as Bishop of Rome. With such unaffected and epoch making gestures did Luciani mark his all too brief time as pope.

One final snap shot of the humility of the man was his request, three times during his brief reign, that he should act as altar server while his chaplain (Fr John Magee) celebrated Mass; I cannot imagine any pope before or since has shown that degree of humility; “In so doing”, he said, “I know that I am truly kneeling before Christ Himself in the Mass.”

Tragically on 29 September 1978, on what should have been the 35th day of his pontificate, John Paul I was found dead in his bed with reading material and a bedside lamp still lit. He had probably suffered a heart attack the night before. John Paul I’s funeral was held in St Peter’s Square on 4 October 1978, celebrated by Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri. In his eulogy of the late pope, he described him as a flashing comet who briefly lit up the church. As one commentator put it, “the dialogue of love between the Pope and the people” continued to the very end as the enormous and stunned crowds at his outdoor requiem standing in the pouring rain testified; hundreds of miles away I too watched on the same television on which just over a month before we had seen his captivating smile first appear on the papal balcony. He was then laid to his rest in the Vatican grottoes.

To a shocked world, questions started to arise almost immediately. How was it possible that a relatively young (he was nearly sixty six) and seemingly healthy new pope could be dead in just over a month? Conspiracy theory followed hard on conspiracy theory and the tremendous good that came from his all too short reign soon became buried in the all too loud question, “Who murdered the pope?”

Questions swiftly arose about the Vatican Bank and possible profound corruption discovered by the new pope. Then the Freemasons got a look in, then the Mafia, then the CIA…the list was fancifully long. Then the theory that he had been poisoned by those who wanted to restore the Tridentine Mass (to them he was a Liberal) or by those who did not (to them he was a Conservative)! The list was endless and ultimately unhelpful as the reputation for true holiness of this beloved man got embroiled in these controversies to the point that the cause for his canonisation has been one of the slowest for any pope in the past one hundred years. So perhaps it is best to revisit that terrible night over forty years ago to see what really had happened; I have now read everything written about that tragic night in English and much that is in Italian and the truth seems quite clear to me.

Around 10 p.m. on the night of his death, the pope learned that several young neo-fascists had fired upon a group of young people reading L’Unità, the Communist newspaper, outside one of the party’s offices in Rome. One boy was killed while another was seriously wounded. The pope lamented to one of his secretaries Fr John Magee, “Even the young are killing each other.” He later retired to his room, supposedly, to read Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ in bed.

The journalist and vice-postulator for John Paul I’s cause of canonization, Stefania Falasca, published a new book in 2017 titled Pope Luciani, Chronicle of a Death, in which she revealed that John Paul I had complained of chest pains just hours before his death, and the evening before, but paid no attention to it and ordered that his doctor not be called.  Falasca confirmed, after interviewing one of the religious sisters who found him and documents from the Vatican Secret Archives, that John Paul I died of a heart attack in the late evening hours of 28 September 1978.

The right eye embolus incident in 1975, coupled with his clearly and severely swollen feet at the Mass celebrated for his taking position of his Cathedral Basilica of St John Lateran on the Saturday before his death, coupled too with three (at least) indications of chest pain on the last day of his life, all point to a man whose heart condition was dangerous. His own preoccupation with imminent death in the last few days of his life and his claim that he would be followed by a pope who was “a foreigner” lead me to believe that Luciani knew that his time was short.

Falasca noted the 2009 testimony of Sister Margherita Marin, one of the two sisters who found the pope dead in his bedroom on the morning of 29 September 1978. She explained that John Paul I had made it a practice to have a morning coffee in the sacristy and then go into the chapel to pray before tending to the day’s matters. Sister Vincenza, the first to find him, (she died 1984) had noted the pope had not touched the coffee she had left for him in the sacristy at 5:15 am (after about ten minutes) and went looking for him but found him dead, and hastily summoned Marin who also went into the room.

Sister Vincenza said: “He hasn’t come out yet? Why not?” and knocked a few more times but heard silence, then opened the door and walked in. Marin remained in the hallway but heard the elder sister say: “Your Holiness, you shouldn’t pull these jokes on me” because Sister Vincenza herself had heart problems. Marin testified that John Paul I’s hands were cold, and she was struck by the darkness of his nails. Marin further testified that original information provided by the Vatican regarding who discovered the pope was wrong, since it had originally been claimed the discovery was by the pope’s secretaries Lorenzi and Magee. Marin testified that “he was in bed with a slight smile” on his face (probably a touch of hagiography creeping in here?). The reading light over the headboard was still on, with his two pillows under his back propping him up, with his legs outstretched and his arms on top of the bed sheets. John Paul I was still in his pyjamas with a few typewritten sheets in his hands. His head was slightly turned to the right and his eyes were partially closed; his glasses rested on his nose.

John Paul I had clearly died of a heart attack and not as the result of any conspiracy (real or imagined). The heart attack was probably finally brought on by his decision on that final evening to run from the dinner table to his office to take an important ‘phone call, probably dislodging another embolus that stopped his heart a few hours later.

There was simply no conspiracy; but if there is any one overwhelming fault that led to his too early death, I believe that the Pope died from corporate neglect. This neglect was largely caused by an anachronistic papal household that led no one to feel they could call a doctor for a clearly sick man against his wishes. If only he had been seen by a doctor, his congestive heart disease might well have been treated and his reign might have lasted much longer than it did. He was too humble to ask for help (he once as pope sheepishly asked his chaplain to make him a coffee as he did not wish to bother anyone else) and the papal household held his office too highly to intervene when he so needed medical assistance. A near Classical tragedy.

But what of his legacy and the reason he has played such a profound part in my life for over forty years.  

During his brief pontificate, John Paul I spoke three times on the concept of God’s mercy. In his General Audience address on 13 September 1978, the pope said that the entire point of mercy is “to surrender to God” through faith in Him, which goes about “transforming one’s life” in the fight against sin, and the pursuit of holiness. Luciani continued that “God has so much tenderness for us” in which “He begs me to repent” from sin to return to God’s embrace. He concluded that “the Church too must be good; good to everyone” in its outreach to the faithful.

Luciani, in his Angelus address on 24 September 1978, spoke about the importance of doing good deeds through charitable and merciful acts in society, to make the world more just, and to improve the overall conditions of society. He elaborated that it was important to “try to be good and to infect others with a goodness imbued with the meekness and love taught by Christ” while seeking to give our all in service to others. He further points out Christ’s example on the Cross, in which He forgave and excused those who persecuted, referring to it as a sentiment which “would help society so much” if put into constant practice.

Luciani also spoke about mercy in his address at the General Audience on 27 September 1978. He referred to God as “infinite good” capable of providing for our “eternal happiness” in His love for us. He continued that it may be “difficult to love others; we do not find them likeable, they have offended us and hurt us“, though he says that forgiveness between brothers and sisters is very important for unity and peace among people. Additionally, he referred to the seven corporal and spiritual acts of mercy, which he said acted as a guide for Christians, though highlighting the fact that “the list is not complete and it would be necessary to update it” as times change since global situations change. He concluded that justice adds to charity, which is linked to the theme of mercy.

His two immediate successors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI  later recalled the warm qualities of the late pontiff in several addresses. In Italy, he is remembered with the appellatives of “Il Papa del Sorriso” (The Smiling Pope) and “Il Sorriso di Dio” (The Smile of God). The process for the canonisation for Pope John Paul I formally began in 1990 with the petition by 226 Brazilian bishops, including four cardinals. The petition was addressed directly to the then Pope John Paul II. On 8 June 2003 the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints gave its assent to the work and on 17 June transferred the forum for the beatification process from Rome to the diocese of Belluno-Feltre while also declaring the late pope as a Servant of God after declaring “nil obstat” (no objections to the cause). Pope Francis named John Paul I as Venerable on 8 November 2017. 

For Luciani to be beatified, the investigators had to certify at least one miracle attributed to his intercession. For canonisation there must be a second miracle, though the reigning pope may waive these requirements altogether, as is often done in the case of beatified popes. Following the announcement that John Paul I would be beatified, details were released that the miracle in question was the recovery of an 11-year-old in Buenos Aires from inflammatory encephalopathy (a disease of the brain). Pope Francis authorized a decree that recognized the miracle on 13 October 2021; it has opened the way finally for John Paul I to be beatified at Saint Peter’s Square on 4 September 2022.

Pope Francis spoke of his predecessor in his 2016 book The Name of God Is Mercy in which Francis recalls how touched he was by his predecessor’s writings. More than any of his predecessors mentioned in his book, Francis refers to Luciani the most. Pope Francis referred to Luciani’s remarks at the latter’s general audience of 6 September 1978 and mentioned how profound that his words were upon him; of the remarks Luciani made, he said: There is the homily when Albino Luciani said he had been chosen because the Lord preferred that certain things not be engraved in bronze or marble but in the dust, so that if the writing had remained, it would have been clear that the merit was only God’s.

So why, all these years later, am I speaking to you about a man whose death shocked both me and the world over forty years ago? His life and short reign changed the Roman papacy for ever and, in many ways, his legacy was the election of that “foreign” pope as his successor to whom most people now wrongly attribute the humanising of the papacy. All that Luciani had planned was lived out in the long reign of that same successor and to great effect.

But that big question; what if he had lived? In John Paul I we clearly had a truly human man as the Chief Bishop of the Western Church who spoke clearly of Divine Love and Mercy and whose smile drew in people of all faiths and none to know more of the Christ he served. He had the catechist’s remarkable gift of making everything clear and simple but not diluted. As a cardinal he would have been well aware of the increasing warmth between our two churches through the ARCIC discussions. 

So in 1978, for Anglicans like me, Albino Luciani might just have been the one who could have enabled some of the divisions between our two Communions finally to have been healed. He had a special love for Britain (asking Cardinal Hume specially to ask for the prayers of British Catholics at his inauguration), taking English lessons each day and praying the Divine Office in English with his Irish chaplain throughout that short period when he steered the Barque of Peter.  

But it was not to be. My naïve personal sense of grief changed over the years into an ever-deepening desire to know more, read more written by and about, and to pray that the Church would at last acknowledge “The Smiling Pope” as a great example for the world of our day. In September this year that process takes its next step and in preparation for that I hope this paper has introduced you, even if only a little, to the one who has made (and continues to make) such a profound influence on my life. 

No doubt Albino Luciani was that flashing comet who briefly lit up the church; but the funny thing about comets is that after a period away…they tend to turn up again! What Luciani taught us about the Mercy and Love of God needs to be heard even louder forty-odd years after his death. Perhaps, through this paper you too will want to know more and come to love this extraordinary humble man who has so shaped my life. 

But I should leave the final words to the man himself taken from the final Angelus message given on the Sunday before his death. He was talking about faith and love being maintained in the face of fearful odds and he quotes the story of the sixteen Carmelites of Compiègne, martyrs during the French revolution.  He says this,

“During the trial they were condemned “to death for fanaticism”. And one of them asked in her simplicity: “Your Honour, what does fanaticism mean?” And the judge: “It is your foolish membership of religion.” “Oh, Sisters, she then said, did you hear, we are condemned for our attachment to faith. What happiness to die for Jesus Christ!”

They were brought out of the prison of the Conciergerie, and made to climb into the fatal cart. On the way they sang hymns; when they reached the guillotine, one after the other knelt before the Prioress and renewed the vow of obedience. Then they struck up “Veni Creator”; the song, however, became weaker and weaker, as the heads of the poor Sisters fell, one by one, under the guillotine. The Prioress, Sister Theresa of St Augustine, was the last, and her last words were the following: “Love will always be victorious, love can do everything.” That was the right word, not violence, but love, can do everything. Let us ask the Lord for the grace that a new wave of love for our neighbour may sweep over this poor world”.

What happiness to die for Jesus Christ! Love can do everything! How apt and applicable these words were to Luciani as his own life drew to its close. But what he cannot have realised was that in that final Sunday crowd in St Peter’s Square was one particular man in need of change, Philip Gannaway, chairman of the Bristol extreme right National Front group who announced his resignation because of the effect those words had on him while on holiday in Rome that late September day; “There was something about the Pope of tremendous warmth and sincerity that touched me. It was then I decided to resign (form the NF). I realised that (political) demonstrations do not achieve anything”. No, as the Pope of the September Smile continues to remind us, only Christ’s Merciful Love can ever do that. 

The future John Paul II greeting Luciani at his papal inauguration August 1978

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