The Bridge Builder: Rediscovering Pope John Paul I

Blessed Pope Paul VI, eternally exhausted from one battle after another—the Herculean labor of implementing Vatican II, upheavals over Humanae Vitae, the tension with the Red Brigades, combating liturgical abuses, and a shockingly altered popular culture—welcomed death on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 1978 after a fifteen year pontificate. Three weeks later, enter the unlikely 65-year-old Patriarch of Venice, Albino Luciani, taking the original name John Paul I.

A new book, Papa Luciani: Chronicle of a Death, was released this week intended to coincide with the cause for John Paul I’s sainthood moving forward. But how much do we know about this mysterious spiritual figure whose heart attack only a month into his papacy stunned the world?

Shortly after the election of Pope Francis in 2013, parallels were quickly drawn between the Argentine Jesuit and the pope of one month in 1978. Both have been credited for “humanizing the papacy,” personalizing a “culture of encounter” by making phone calls, letter writing, and impromptu chatter. Interestingly, John Paul I himself had planned to deliver a speech on September 30, 1978 to Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe and the Society of Jesus; such contents of the speech will never be known, as John Paul I was found dead on the morning of the 28th.

Was Pope John Paul I a failure? Though he did not have time to produce any epic encyclicals or embark on worldwide pilgrimages, he ultimately fulfilled his duty as what a “pontiff” really means: bridge builder (from the Latin pons) by bridging the old to the new. While perhaps his health and vigor were not prepared for the physical requirements of the office, with his simplicity and smile he dissolved the old perceptions of “stifling” Vatican protocol with a fresh, humbling, personal emphasis ripe for a new time. Indeed, Humilitas was his motto. In this way, he prepared the way for the “new evangelization.” “We wish to remind the entire Church,” he said in his only Urbi et Orbi message, “that its first duty is that of evangelization.”

“God has mysteriously arranged it so that the greatness of man is born of effort, responsibility, sacrifice, and mutual aid. We can tell a man’s worth by the way he reacts to misfortune. Is he crushed by sorrow? It means he is mediocre. Does he remain on his feet? He shows himself to be greater than if he were raised on a pedestal.”

“The world … knows well … the temptation of substituting for God one’s own decisions, decisions that would prescind from moral laws. The danger for modern man is that he would reduce the earth to a desert, the person to an automaton, brotherly love to planned collectivization, often introducing death where God wishes life.”

“St. Paul did not have faith; in fact, he persecuted believers. God is waiting for him on the road to Damascus. ‘Paul!’ He says to him. ‘Don’t even dream of rearing up, of kicking like a frisky horse. I am that Jesus whom you are persecuting. I have plans for you. You must change!’ Paul surrendered; he changed, he turned his own life upside down.”

These three quotes could easily be read from the respective canons of the three popes who came after John Paul I, yet they are all his own quotations from 1978. His understanding of the Church defined in contemporary culture is underestimated, simply because scant attention has been paid to him. “[E]ven if in the Church there are some defects and some failings, our affection for the Church must never fail,” he said in his General Audience of September 13, 1978.

He held four of those General Audiences, devoting three to the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love. His faith catechesis, from September 13, is particularly illuminating. Here his pastoral and teaching gifts are on display as he effortlessly weaves in references from a Roman poet, Trilussa, to John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra. “Lord, take me as I am,” he concludes, “with my defects and failings, but make me become what You want me to be.”

These virtues would be the subjects decades later of Benedict’s encyclicals Deus Caritas Est (2005) and Spe Salvi (2007) with the faith encyclical, Lumen Fidei, issued by Francis in July 2013. As it happened, John Paul I’s first letter, dated September 1, 1978, is addressed to none other than Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. “Ostensus non datus: shown to us but not given” is how the then-archbishop of Munich-Freising, Joseph Ratzinger, described the brief pontificate of John Paul I in an October 6, 1978 homily memorializing the deceased pope.

But very soon into his pontificate a strange thing happened. A little more than a week after his inauguration, Pope John Paul I welcomed to the Vatican a Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Archbishop of Leningrad, Nikodim, 49 years old. According to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s obituary of Nikodim, he had survived five heart attacks prior to September 5, 1978, when in the middle of his audience with John Paul he slumped in his chair. It was the pope himself who administered last rites just before Nikodim died.

That John Paul I was already engaged in such ecumenical efforts as hosting the Russian Orthodox Archbishop of Leningrad and Novgorod was overshadowed by this sudden death, which itself would be overshadowed three weeks later when Sr. Vincenza Taffarel discovered John Paul in his bed on the morning of September 28, dead from a heart attack. Again the cardinals convened. A 33-day papacy was soon to give way to a near 27-year one.

“Progress in love” was the final phrase from John Paul I at the Wednesday September 27, 1978 General Audience. A day later, a worldwide church was stunned. But in just a short time Pope John Paul II, the man “from a far away country,” made it seem like he had always been the Bishop of Rome. Even in his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis, published six months after John Paul I’s death, he was already looking forward to shepherding the Church into the year 2000. Progress in love—the advice of a bridge builder.

Today, when anyone thinks of John Paul I, typically they talk of conspiracy and scandal. Most infamous is Francis Coppola’s The Godfather, Part III (1990), which features a newly elected Cardinal Lamberto taking the name John Paul I is soon assassinated by the Mafia. Novels along the lines of Dan Brown, In God’s Name and The Last Pope, a stage play, The Last Confession, or Malachi Martin’s Vatican, for example, also take up the assassination motif.

There are also those who believe John Paul I was the “bishop dressed in white” from the Fatima apparitions, intensified after Luciani met with the sole Fatima survivor, Sr. Lucia, in 1977. Albino Luciani’s own account of the meeting is not on apparitions and prophecies, but on tangible truths we can all learn from what happened in Portugal in 1917: repentance, the need for prayer and the rosary, the existence of Hell. His full account is contained in The Last Secret of Fatima. “If he were elected pope, I think he would make a good one,” Sr. Lucia is to have said.

The obsessive theories on conspiracy and prophecy detract from John Paul I’s rich, personalized teachings on the faith that we can read today in new light, especially in the context of the style of Francis. The Smiling Pope by Raymond and Lauretta Seabeck contains not only Luciani’s papal addresses such as the General Audiences, but also homilies, speeches and letters from his years as a bishop. The simple, humble pope who seemed crushed by the office is here shown as well read, acquainted with cultures from all over the world, effusive in wanting to share his joy to his flock. In a section entitled “The Theology of Joy,” he cites Andrew Carnegie, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin and at least four others in expounding on the essence of Christian joy.

Most unique, perhaps, are the letters Cardinal Luciani wrote to famous historical people for a monthly magazine column. Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton, and Petrarch are a few of the names to whom Luciani writes. In his letter to St. Therese of Lisieux, which is entitled “Joy, Exquisite Love,” again Luciani picks up on the theme of joy. “Joy can become exquisite charity, if we communicate it to others, just as you did at Carmel,” he wrote. In these letters and his other writings, it is clear Albino Luciani’s vision was not of monumental policies or sprawling exhortations, but emphasis on the individual’s striving in everyday life to love thy neighbor just a little bit more than yesterday, and in doing so, “seek the face of Christ.”

The “full flowering of a renaissance in Catholic thought” as George Weigel defined the Wojtyla-Ratzinger years in 2011, could only have been made possible by the papacy of John Paul I, short-lived as it was. He was the one who unlocked the door of bringing the Church into the new millennium, a door opened and realized by Wojtyla and carried on by Ratzinger and Bergoglio—who remarkably, as Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis, are carrying it on together, at the same time. Who could have considered that in 1978?

“John XXIII and Paul VI are a stage to which I wish to refer directly as a threshold from which I intent to continue, in a certain sense together with John Paul I, into the future,” wrote John Paul II in Redemptor Hominis in 1979. “Letting myself be guided by unlimited trust in and obedience to the Spirit that Christ promised and sent to His Church.” Such a statement of deference and continuity shows the unbroken bond popes have forged from one to another all the way to Saint Peter, handed the keys from Christ Himself, the ultimate bridge builder to the divine and the human.

image: By Sentinelle del mattino International (Flickr: papa-albino-Luciani) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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James Day's work has appeared in Crisis, Catholic World Report, and Catholic Exchange. He is the author of Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (November 2016, Sophia Institute Press).

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