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.
“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.