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James T. KeaneSeptember 02, 2022
Pope John Paul I appears on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica following his election on Aug. 26, 1978. (CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

This Sunday, Sept. 4, Pope Francis and thousands of the faithful will gather in St. Peter’s Square for the beatification of Pope John Paul I. He will be the 177th person beatified by Pope Francis and the fourth 20th-century pope to be beatified in the last dozen years. His predecessors, Paul VI and John XXIII, and his successor, John Paul II, have all also been declared saints in the last decade; much ink has been spilled over all three and their monumental impact on the contemporary church. But what about this “smiling pope,” who served as leader of the Catholic Church for just 33 days in 1978? Here is a not-so-brief introduction.

The American cardinals hinted in the aftermath of the election of Pope John Paul I that many at the conclave had wanted a relative outsider.

From Forno di Canale to Rome

Pope John Paul I was born Albino Luciani in Forno di Canale (now called Canale d’Agordo), a small town in the foothills of the Dolomites northwest of Venice, on Oct. 17, 1912. He joined the minor seminary in Feltre in 1923 at the age of 11 (!) and was ordained for the diocese of Belluno-Feltre in 1935.

After ordination, Luciani served as a parish priest in his hometown for less than two years before becoming a seminary professor. In 1947, he received his doctorate in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, though he remained living in the Belluno-Feltre Diocese. He served in a number of diocesan positions in the following years and published a book on catechetics in 1949, Catechetica in Briciole (“Catechism in Crumbs”).

In December 1958, Pope John XXIII appointed Luciani the bishop of Vittorio Veneto, in the region of Venice; just a few weeks later, in January 1959, the pope announced his intention to call an ecumenical council. Luciani participated in all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council.

In 1967, Luciani drafted a document on behalf of the bishops of his region that was given to Pope Paul VI, unsuccessfully arguing for a change in church teaching on artificial birth control to allow for the use of synthetic progesterone and estrogen to prevent ovulation. “It would seem not to go against nature if, manufactured in imitation of natural progesterone, one would use it to distance one birth from the other, to give rest to the mother and to think of the good of children already born or to be born,” he wrote.

In 1969, Pope Paul VI named him patriarch of Venice, where Luciani would remain for the next nine years.

During his time as patriarch of Venice, Luciani published a well-received series of whimsical and erudite letters to historical and literary figures, with each letter serving as a sermon or an opportunity for catechesis; they were eventually published as a book, Illustrissimi (“To The Illustrious Ones”). While some of his imagined correspondents were predictable—Jesus, St. Luke, Teresa of Ávila—others might come as a surprise. G. K. Chesterton? Mark Twain? St. Romedius’s tamed bear?

Luciani gained recognition among his fellow bishops for his leading role in the 1971 Synod of Bishops, and Pope Paul VI named him a cardinal in 1973. Despite controversies over the legalization of divorce in Italy and struggles with both communist and fascist groups, his tenure as patriarch was considered a positive one, and Luciani gained a reputation for simplicity and humility (his first episcopal motto was Humilitas).

Pope John Paul I was the last Italian-born pope, breaking a lineage that spanned 45 popes over 456 years.

The election

When Pope Paul VI died on Aug. 6, 1978, it marked the end of a long and remarkable papacy that spanned 15 years of tumult in the Catholic Church and in the world. Elected during Vatican II, he oversaw the often-contentious and frequently uneven implementation of the decrees of that council. He also reigned during a period of rapidly changing social mores around issues like divorce and artificial birth control. His encyclical on the latter subject, “Humanae Vitae,” caused a firestorm of controversy upon its release and remains a neuralgic topic for Catholics around the world today.

Even before his election in 1963, Pope Paul VI had been described by Pope John XXIII as “a bit like Hamlet,” in the sense that he could give the impression of indecisiveness and doubt; indeed, shortly before his death, he wrote, “Am I Hamlet? Or Don Quixote? On the left? On the right? I do not think I have been properly understood.” His confessor, Paolo Dezza, S.J., later said of him that “[i]f Paul VI was not a saint when he was elected pope, he became one during his pontificate. I was able to witness not only with what energy and dedication he toiled for Christ and the church, but also and above all, how much he suffered for Christ and the church.”

Who would the cardinals gathering in a hot Roman August for the papal conclave elect to succeed him? The most likely candidate was Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, the archbishop of Genoa, who had purportedly garnered numerous votes in both the 1958 conclave that elected John XXIII and the 1963 conclave that elected Paul VI (and would again in the conclave that elected John Paul II). Luciani faced longer odds, in part because he had spent virtually his entire life in northern Italy, and the modern papacy seemed to require a world traveler. However, the American cardinals hinted in the aftermath that many at the conclave had wanted a relative outsider. In addition, Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, the archbishop of Florence who was recognized as something of a king-maker among the cardinals, was reportedly a champion of Luciani.

After the normal confusion in the gathered crowd in St. Peter’s Square over the color of the Sistine Chapel smoke that designates whether a pope has been elected on any particular ballot (“Was that black? Was it gray? Were there two different ballots burned this morning or just one?”), Cardinal Pericle Felici appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica at 7:15 p.m. on Aug. 26, 1978, and issued the traditional announcement: “Habemus Papam.” Luciani had been elected on the fourth ballot. He was announced to the crowd as Johannes Paulus.

“He doesn’t talk like a Pope,” Father O’Hare reported he heard a young boy say, “He talks like us.”

The first pope to take a double name, he did so in recognition of his two predecessors, Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI. “Realize this, I do not have the wisdom or heart of Pope John. Nor do I have the preparation and culture of Pope Paul,” he said after his election. “However, I stand now in their place. I will seek to serve the church, and I hope that you will help me with your prayers.”

“Standing in the great window over the main entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica, John Paul I seemed to strike immediately a responsive chord of affection with the thousands in the square below,” wrote Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., editor in chief of America, reporting from Rome on Aug. 28. “They greeted his very first word—‘Yesterday…’—with cheers and laughter. An American could not help thinking that the new Pope was saying, in effect: ‘A funny thing happened to me on my way to the Sistine Chapel.’”

“The smiles, the applause and even the occasional tears on the faces in the crowd suggested a kind of personal intimacy that would normally seem unthinkable in a crowd of such magnitude. Yet, the response of the crowd reflected the qualities that the American cardinals cited as they attempted to describe the new Pope shortly after leaving the conclave,” Father O’Hare continued. “John Paul I would be a man of simplicity and good humor, they said, somewhat shy and self-deprecating. He would be, above all, a pastoral Pope, a Pope of the people.”

At his installation, Pope John Paul I did away with the traditional lavish papal coronation (including being crowned with the three-tiered papal tiara), choosing instead a more simple “solemn inauguration of Petrine Ministry.” He initially wished to do away with the “sedia gestatoria,” a throne on which popes were traditionally carried, but was convinced by Vatican officials that the crowds at his inauguration would be unable to see him without it.

News reports of the day focused on his simple, straightforward style and initial awkwardness with the trappings and rhetorical pomp of the papacy. “He doesn’t talk like a Pope,” Father O’Hare reported he heard a young boy say, “He talks like us.”

Many of his priorities would become those of his successor, John Paul II.

His program for the papacy

In a message read to the College of Cardinals the morning after his election, Pope John Paul I laid out the priorities for his papacy. First and foremost would be the continued implementation of Vatican II, “without diluting doctrine, but, at the same time, without hesitating.”

He also stressed the need to protect the dignity of human life and care for creation, with a hint that he would continue to oppose communism but also the Cold War: “The danger for modern man is that he would reduce the earth to a desert, the person to an automaton, brotherly love to a planned collectivization, often introducing death where God wishes life.” Evangelization and ecumenism would be priorities as well. Finally, he wished to revise the Code of Canon Law, which had been promulgated six decades earlier and was in serious need of updating.

Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri: "He passed as a meteor which unexpectedly lights up the heavens and then disappears, leaving us amazed and astonished.”

An unexpected death

It was not to be—though many of his priorities would become those of his successor, John Paul II. On the morning of Sept. 29, 1978, the Vatican announced that John Paul I had been found dead in his bed by a priest who was his personal secretary. A heart attack or an embolism was determined to be the cause, and later reports noted that the pope had complained of chest pains the evening before.

His death became a source of intrigue almost immediately, in part because an Italian wire service reported that the Vatican (presumably to avoid the suggestion of scandal) had lied about who had discovered him dead. It was not his priest-secretary at all, but a nun who provided his morning coffee. The Vatican also reported he had been reading The Imitation of Christ, the spiritual classic attributed to Thomas à Kempis, when he died, when in fact he had apparently been going through routine Vatican paperwork.

A 1984 book by the British crime writer David Yallop, In God’s Name, argued that Pope John Paul I had been murdered because he planned to investigate financial corruption in the Vatican. Among those Yallop identified as part of the plot was the American archbishop Paul Marcinkus, head of the Vatican Bank and an influential (and intimidating) figure in the Vatican before and after Pope John Paul I’s reign. (His nickname? “The Pope’s Gorilla.”) Though later writings by John Cornwell and Stefania Falasca (the vice-postulator of his cause for sainthood) debunked many of Yallop’s allegations, In God’s Name has sold over six million copies, and his narrative has influenced later representations of the short papacy—including in the film “The Godfather: Part III.”

At Pope John Paul I’s funeral Mass, the dean of the College of Cardinals, Carlo Confalonieri, said “[h]e passed as a meteor which unexpectedly lights up the heavens and then disappears, leaving us amazed and astonished.”

With the Oct. 16 election of Karol Wojtyla, 1978 became “The Year of the Three Popes.” Succeeded by a Pole, a German and an Argentinian, Pope John Paul I was the last Italian-born pope, breaking a lineage that spanned 45 popes over 456 years.

With the Oct. 16 election of Karol Wojtyla, 1978 became “The Year of the Three Popes.”

The beatification cause

In 1990, the bishops’ conference of Brazil asked Pope John Paul II to begin the official process for the canonization of Pope John Paul I, citing his growing reputation for holiness. The cause stalled, in part because so many modern popes were under consideration for sainthood at the time. In 2002, Bishop Vincenzo Savio, the bishop of Pope John Paul I’s home diocese of Belluno-Feltre, obtained permission to begin the process, and in November 2003, Pope John Paul II declared him a “servant of God,” the first official step toward canonization.

After many years of gathering evidence and testimonies (including those of Pope Benedict XVI and of Sister Margherita Marin, who was one of the women religious serving in the papal household in 1978), his postulators presented a positio of over 3,500 pages to the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints in 2016. On Nov. 8, 2017, Pope Francis declared Pope John Paul I “venerable,” a second step toward canonization.

An important part of the canonization process is proof that the candidate interceded in a miracle after his or her death. In the case of Pope John Paul I, his postulators presented the miraculous healing in 2011 of a girl who suffered from epilepsy and was dying of septic shock after a priest in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Father José Dabusti, invoked John Paul I in praying for her healing. In October of last year, Pope Francis authorized the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints to promulgate a decree recognizing that the healing could not be explained by science, paving the way for Pope John Paul I’s beatification.

The next step in the process is canonization, the official declaration that Pope John Paul I is a saint. While the process traditionally took many years (sometimes centuries), under recent popes we have seen a saint’s canonization follow quite shortly after his or her beatification, as was the case with Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa and Óscar Romero. It would not be a surprise if Pope John Paul I is soon recognized to be among them as a saint.

For further reading on Pope John Paul I: Joseph McAuley’s “Letter to Albino Luciani” from 2014 and “When quoting a prophet got a pope in trouble” from 2015, and Mo Guernon on “The Forgotten Pope” from 2011.

[Read next: “Pope Francis beatifies John Paul I, the ‘smiling pope’ who governed the church for 33 days in 1978.”]

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