Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Mo GuernonOctober 24, 2011

On the Second Sunday of Easter, Pope Benedict XVI declared John Paul II “blessed,” a milestone in the late pope’s journey to sainthood. The speed at which Karol Wojtyla’s cause for canonization has progressed is singular. Under the church’s rules, the process cannot begin until a candidate has been deceased at least five years, but Pope Benedict dispensed with that requirement in this instance.

Not so with John Paul’s namesake and immediate predecessor, Albino Luciani, whose own cause, initiated nearly eight years ago, still sluggishly wends its way through the labyrinthine Vatican bureaucracy, its ultimate resolution still in doubt.

For those whose faith was rekindled by that gentle pope, the lingering uncertainty about his canonization is disheartening. Albino Luciani’s life was so exemplary that it could inspire a world grown weary and cynical and yearning for the “greater gifts” and a “more excellent way.”

“He passed as a meteor which unexpectedly lights up the heavens and then disappears, leaving us amazed and astonished,” Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri aptly observed at the pope’s funeral Mass in 1978.


It is consoling to remember this holy man. Hundreds of millions, however, have no such consolation, for Luciani’s fleeting 33-day papacy has been eclipsed by that of John Paul II, whose illustrious 27-year tenure was of impressive duration and historical consequence. But papal longevity itself is no criterion for sainthood, and it is wrong to conclude that Luciani left no legacy of import to succeeding generations.

In just a month Pope John Paul I captured the hearts of people worldwide, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who witnessed in him the welcome but unexpected triumph of humility. Many of us intuitively recognized in the flash of his benign grin, the gentleness of his manner and the compassion at the core of his public talks a beacon of hope. That Luciani transfixed the world during his abbreviated pontificate is no exaggeration: he was a radiant man who taught us how to live and love.

Luciani picked “Humilitas” as his episcopal motto, an appropriate choice for a prince of the church who regarded himself as “poor dust.” “We must feel small before God,” he preached; and he lived that conviction faithfully, often describing himself publicly as “a poor man accustomed to small things and silence.”

How Can I Serve You?

There was a nobility in Luciani’s simplicity, and evidence of his humility abounds. As bishop of Vittorio Veneto, for example, he visited his parishes by bicycle, a rather unassuming means of transport for a man of his station. Later, when taking official possession of St. Mark’s Basilica, he dispensed with the fanfare traditionally accorded the new patriarch of the ancient archdiocese of Venice. At his official residence he literally opened his door to all who knocked: priests, penitents, prostitutes, drug addicts, drunks, the destitute—everyone.

Luciani eschewed the accouterments of high ecclesiastical office, preferring a tattered black cassock to the regal purple and red hues signifying the ranks of bishop and cardinal to which he had reluctantly been raised. Strolling through the streets of Venice, Luciani would furtively stuff his zucchetto in his pocket, content to be mistaken for a parish priest by the pedestrians he encountered. After one such solitary twilight walk, the patriarch returned home sporting a bruised and swollen cheek. When the sisters asked him what had happened, he replied dispassionately, “Oh, nothing…. I met a drunkard…. He hit me in the face.”

Even Luciani’s speech patterns reflected the austerity that characterized his life. Like any great teacher, he had a gift for conveying profound insights in unadorned, easily understandable prose. Though blessed with a probing intellect, prodigious memory and vast learning, he sprinkled his discourse with humble anecdotes from life and literature, clearly illustrating great truths that even the young and untutored could readily grasp.

As pope, Luciani quickly discarded the royal “we” and disdained the sedia gestatoria, or portable throne in which popes, hoisted onto the shoulders of their subjects, were carried in majestic procession like conquering monarchs. At his papal installation he also abandoned the traditional crowning with the ostentatious, jewel-encrusted, triple tiara, insisting instead on receiving a simple shepherd’s pallium as symbol of his new role as bishop of Rome. This pope’s unexpected greeting to those who met with him at the Vatican was, “How can I serve you?”

And there were private instances—only recently disclosed—in which John Paul I revealed his abiding humility in ways the public could not have imagined.

A Niece Remembers

This past summer I made a monthlong pilgrimage to Italy and retraced Luciani’s life journey from Canale D’Agordo, his birthplace in the Dolomites, to St. Peter’s Basilica, where the pope’s earthly remains rest in a crypt not far from the bones of St. Peter.

I also examined documents written in his own hand and spoke extensively with several people who knew and loved him, including nieces, prelates and secretaries from his days as bishop, patriarch and pope.

One of them was the pope’s favorite niece, Pia Luciani Basso, daughter of Luciani’s younger brother Edoardo. Their relationship, she confided to me, was so close that he was like “a second father” to her.

She explained how her uncle’s soothing presence and gentle encouragement eased her mind when she left home to attend a distant school. Despite a pressing schedule as bishop, Luciani volunteered to accompany her when her father fell ill. “He always put aside his own problems to help others in need,” she recalled.

Her father was fond of telling about an incident that illuminates the pope’s extraordinary selflessness even as a youngster. The Luciani family was poor, and hunger was an almost constant companion. Even so, one day Albino came home with some white bread, a precious commodity. Instead of eating it himself or giving away a part of it, he gave Edoardo the entire piece and watched with satisfaction as the younger boy devoured it.

“His humility was a choice, because he was always conscious of his intelligence, but he was conscious too that this was a gift from God,” the niece explained.

Mrs. Basso noted that Luciani thought of himself as an ordinary priest. “His dream was to have a parish in the lake region and bring with him his mother and his father, because he said his mother would be happy to be in a house on the lake.” He never realized his dream.

Instead, Luciani would reluctantly accept what ambitious clerics yearned for: promotion to the highest ranks in the church hierarchy. “I must accept the will of Providence,” he would say resignedly, according to Mrs. Basso.

Just before entering the conclave that elected him, Luciani wrote to her expressing relief that he was “out of danger.”

“I think he was afraid of that. He was hoping that it wouldn’t happen,” she conjectured.

Santo Subito!

“Lived holiness is very much more widespread than officially proclaimed holiness.... Coming into Paradise, we will probably find mothers, workers, professional people, students set higher than the official saints we venerate on earth,” Luciani once wrote. That is undoubtedly so, and though he would surely deem himself undeserving to be counted among them, his life is a testament to his worthiness.

In his book Making Saints, Kenneth L. Woodward defines a saint as an individual who is recognized as especially holy. By that standard alone, Albino Luciani should have been canonized decades ago. The church’s official recognition of a saint confers special status on an individual in the eyes of the faithful, for it is the saints whose lives we celebrate and whose virtues individuals of conscience strive to emulate. It is they whose memory endures in perpetuity.

The Pope Luciani Foundation, based in Canale d’Agordo, Italy, his birthplace, is devoted to the laudable goal of memorializing him. Its director Loris Serafini, author of the delightful biography Albino Luciani, The Smiling Pope, informed me recently that dedication of a museum and library in the pope’s honor will coincide with the centenary celebration of his birth on Oct. 17, 2012.

That is a heartening development, but to those whose souls Luciani touched, it is not enough; his cause for sainthood should proceed apace.

Today, a broken world desperately needs moral enlightenment. The life and teachings of the first Pope John Paul can provide that in abundance. Thus it would be an incalculable loss to those in current generations—as well as future ones who never knew him—for his memory to fade into oblivion.

A streaking meteor, spectacular as it is for the glorious moment we behold it, leaves not a trace of its luminous presence once it hurtles beyond our vision. Pope Benedict has the power to prevent the fading of Albino Luciani’s light by canonizing this extraordinary pope.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Stephen Taylor
12 years 7 months ago
It is my fondest wish and now a subject of my prayers that Pope John-Paul I should become a saint. 
david power
12 years 7 months ago
I have read the book of Pope John Paul where he writes to famous dead people.It was not as good as I imagined it would be, very pastoral but a little bit plodding.
He himself comes across as a very humble man.I am sure that he would have been a fantastic Pope in the tradition of Pope Roncalli.
The Church needed humility at that time.It still does.Luciani understood that Christianity is not just moral norms and that people seek Christ and not moral perfection.Having to pretend at the latter has lead to a whole lot of problems for the Church and those who are in it.
That said I have no wish to see another Pope raised in any way to the altars not even a great Pope and holy man like Luciani.
It is making a mockery of the whole system at this stage.Pacelli ,Roncalli ,Montini and Wojtyla are all on the way.That is to say that sainthood is not only within reach of most people but a slam dunk if you are Pope.
Within 2 seconds of his death people will be calling for the canonization of Pope Benedict.
It is mainy about political correctness at the moment and that is why Pope Luciani is not going anywhere fast.I think that Pacelli was a fascinating man but not what I would consider a saint.Roncalli was a giant in every sense and filled with goodness and maybe a Saint ,but one who would surely have preferred to see a layman promoted before himself.Montini was a gem of a man.Educated and sophisticated and as his papacy went on closer and closer to God in the mystical sense(the book by Hebblewaith is excellent), but a Saint??. The papacy is a job that requires a political sense.To be a saint in that position would require an incredible amount of painful honesty.Maybe of all the recent popes only Roncalli was capable of looking realityin the eye that much.Of Luciani we may never know truly. I don't like anything being dedicated to Popes anymore but hope that the book by the Author will help us all to discover more of Albino's relationship with Jesus.Thanks for a wonderful article         
Charlotte Bloebaum
12 years 7 months ago
Thank you for this.  I was not familiar with this pope.  Saints are much more important to me in my spiritual life than Popes because as David stated, Popes are about politics and too many Pope/Saints tarnish the idea of sainthood.  Pope Paul I sounds like a man who could truly be both Pope and saint.  Will be reading the book, thanks again.
David Smith
12 years 7 months ago
If the papacy is about politics and Luciani was not a politician, how did he manage to rise so far through the hierarchy?  He must have pleased a great many politicians a great deal.
david power
12 years 7 months ago

I think your question is either aimed at Annie or else at me through her slight misquote of what I wrote.
I wrote that the path of canonization is mainly about political correctness now or at least of it is not expedient for the Vatican they will not in any way aid the cause regardless of the holiness of the candidate.
If it is you can bet your bottom dollar we will have a santo subito.
The secong thing I wrote was that the job requires a "political sense"  which is not to say that it is purely political.Being a football coach of a major team requires the same as does being a bishop of any diocese in the world .
The papacy has always required this and not just during the time  of the papal states.
Most people placed in that position (including myself) would resort to being crafty. We would hire good spokesmen and "project" an air of honesty.
We would give jobs to our friends because we understand the need for "loyalty".
If there were a major scandal we would cover it up or deny it.Our political and survival instincts would kick in and everything else would go out the window.
A Saint would find it impossible to do that successfully. He would be disgusted with the mendacity of it all, he would wonder at what christianity had become and care for the souls who were involved in any such duplicity.
He would essentially be an emperor constantly noting that he ahd no clothes( a good example of just that is Luciani).I will stop now as it is Mo who is writing the book not me. 
David Smith
12 years 7 months ago
David, thanks for your thoughtful comments.  But I still can't help thinking that there must be a much more political side to Luciani than Mr. Guernon is telling us about.  In my experience with hierarchies, you don't rise to the top if you don't play the game.  There's a lot of towing the line and scratching of backs involved.
Liz Webster
12 years 7 months ago
I agree with both of you David Smith and David Power!  Here's how I can agree with both...
When Pope John Paul I was elected to the papacy, I was shocked!!!  He came from seemingly out of nowhere (and yes, I do realize Venice is a prime bishopric in Italy) - he was not in the forefront of possible candidates in any way shape or form.  He, himself, from the article felt there was no way that he could be elected Pope - a true fear for him, it would seem.  And yet when he was brought out onto that balcony... Pope John Paul I was so welcoming, his smile the smile of the love of God palpably present before a world in need of love, humility, and servanthood!!!  In just hours he had captivated Catholics and non-Catholics alike by a presence that seemed out of place in a role of such celebrity, power and control!

The election of John Paul I to the papacy is one of the best 'world stage' examples I know of that proves that the Holy Spirit is alive, well and very active within our world and our Church today.  How this simple, humble, servant got elected to the papacy is truly an instance where the phrase "God works in mysterious ways" applies!!!  

The power brokers of our beloved Church chose this humble servant - that fact, for me at least, was a miraculous choice in a world filled with 'political' machination both inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church!  

As of today, I will begin to pray for his canonization and I will write a letter to Pope Benedict and the curial head in charge of the canonization process as well.  

Nothing is impossible for God!  Even the election of Albino Luciani to the papacy!!!
Eleanor Yavarone
12 years 7 months ago
Thank you, again, for focusing attention on this well-loved Pope, no matter how short the reign. As an Italian American, I am thoroughly suspect of his quick demise even with all the "facts" offered. Few people understand the Roman mind and the actions it sanctions.
John Stabeno
12 years 7 months ago
I have read three books on his life and death. I often wonder where the church would be now, had he not been murdered. I am inspired by his holiness.
david hennessy
12 years 7 months ago
Papa Luciani,of happy memory,was the forerunner of his namesake and successor

Papa Wojtyla built on the great simplicity and humility  that were the hallmarks of his predecessors brief Pontificate.

In a way John Paul prepared the way for the John Paul II. A humble loving John the Baptist figure who quietly ended the Regal Papacy in favor of the Universal Pastorate of John Paul The Great.

Papa Luciani was not just a "Smiling Pope",he was a quiet and brilliant reformer. He was a pastor and a holy priest yes, but also a wise bishop who touched his world in a special way.It was Thy will be done not my will be done for him. Those that would like to lionize him as a creature of the left are sadly mistaken.

I pray that the Church Universal recognizes the heroic nature of his life and raises him to the Altars. I regularly ask his intercession and eagerly await his beautification.

He was that little white light that shone so briefly but he lit the way for the greatness of John Paul The Great.

I look forward to the authors book.
Anne Chapman
12 years 7 months ago
It seems possible that Pope John Paul I might have been a great pope, in the tradition of John XXIII.  How tragic for the church that the man who succeeded him and took the same name was anything but a great pope.  He was a celebrity pope.
david power
12 years 7 months ago
"the greatness of John Paul The Great",I have no doubt he would have agreed with that himself. So great that he managed to cover up the sexual abuse of children for over 20 years and promote bishops who had done the same to become cardinals.
Law ,Mahoney were promoted strangely enough just after they had moved their pedophile priests to other Parishes.He was so great that he managed to protect Maciel for the 8 years of the accusations up to his death.
So great that he presided over the biggest falling away of the Faith in history.
He thought that because people liked to come out and clap him and have a party they were becoming "good" catholics.
He fully knew of all the corruption of the Vatican bank but again decided to turn a blind eye on that and continue writing his encylical on the need for ethics in business. Think of the family of Roberto Calvi who was found hanging from a bridge in London because he got on the wrong side of Wojtyla's buddies.

The woman who worked with him on his book said about him "Nor is he truly modest, according to Dr.Tymieniecka. "He is by no means as humble as he appears...He thinks about himself very highly, very adequately.".

Jesus said "Only God is Good" you of course DHennessy did not say that he was good but great .No the same I know. Place the man in context.Don't swoon for anybody except a pretty woman or the Lord Jesus Himself. The Church(we) needs to place the focus back on Jesus so that we can all respond to life in an authentic way.Not simply just do as we are told.   
Jim McCrea
12 years 6 months ago
There is no John Paul The Great. This is John Paul II who, as with most of us, was far from being Great.

The latest from america

An important international conference in Rome on May 21 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Plenary Council of the Catholic Church in China. Here’s what you need to know.
Gerard O’ConnellMay 20, 2024
During an audience with a delegation from Loyola University Chicago at the Vatican on May 20, Pope Francis said, “Education happens on three levels: the head, the heart and the hands.”
Pope FrancisMay 20, 2024
The proclamation comes just two weeks after the Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Joe Biden.
People pick through discarded produce at the central market for fruit and vegetables in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Friday, May 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Argentina has been in a state of economic upheaval for years with two constants—a continuous increase in poverty and corresponding efforts by the Catholic Church to respond to that need.
Lucien ChauvinMay 20, 2024