He was Vicar of Christ for only thirty-three days—heading the tenth shortest pontificate in history—but Pope John Paul I’s impact on the Church has far outlived his time as its leader.
Born Albino Luciani in 1912, he grew up in Forno di Canale, a poor region in northern Italy, but one rich in faith and culture. His father was a bricklayer, his mother a homemaker, and they shared their Catholic faith with their children.
When Luciani was ten, a visiting Capuchin friar delivered a powerful series of Lenten sermons, which transfixed the young boy. From that moment onward, Luciani decided to become a priest, and his desire only strengthened when he saw how the Church gave hope to the poor.
Describing his first impressions of Catholicism, he wrote: “In Canale, I was a little boy from a poor family. But when entering the Church, I listened to the organ playing, and I forgot my poor clothes. I had the particular impression that the organ greeted me and my poor friends, as if we were princes.”
He realized that the Catholic Church is special “because it makes the small ones great” by honoring them as spiritual equals through the liturgy and sacraments. It was a message he would joyfully spread as a priest.
Years later, after his ordination, he contracted pneumonia and was forced to spend time in a sanatorium. Not being able to minister to the people discouraged him, but each morning as he prayed and gradually regained his health, he kissed his cassock, thanking God anew for having the honor to wear it. The priestly dress, he later wrote, “was for me a flag, a help, a protection.”
Fr. Luciani’s first assignment was as a pastor and catechist to the miners and children in his home region. During that time the future pontiff learned to explain the Gospel with clarity and simplicity. Recognizing his gifts as a teacher, his superiors appointed him a professor and then vice rector at the Belluno Seminary. Made the Bishop of Vittorio Veneto in 1958, he participated in all the sessions of Vatican II.
During the tumultuous years that followed, Bishop Luciani never compromised his orthodoxy and fought vigorously for the often-confused Catholic laity: “The faith of the people is being compromised, not only by those who write and spread errors, but also by those who keep silent and do not write, whereas they should speak out.”
Known for his warmth and affection, he nevertheless corrected misguided priests who accommodated the world. “If you wish to please men,” he counseled them, “you are not a servant of Jesus Christ.”
Bishop Luciani’s gentle but firm pastoral style won him the admiration of Blessed Paul VI, who appointed him Patriarch of Venice in 1969, and soon thereafter made him a Cardinal. Despite the stature of his position, he maintained his modesty and close relations with the poor and outcast, in line with his episcopal motto, “Humilitas.” He often quoted St Augustine: “If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility. Not that there are no other precepts, but if humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts our meaningless.”
Cardinal Luciani was renowned not only for his speaking abilities, but also for his ability to listen to and resolve contentious debates. In 1977, after an Italian bishop wrote the leader of the Communist Party in Italy offering to open up “Christian-Marxist” dialogue, there was a furor as the Italian episcopal conference delayed their response to the proposal. Finally, Cardinal Luciani broke the silence, revealing he had consulted a high-ranking prelate in Poland who had a warned of any such dialogue:
Be careful. The maneuver is classic. In Poland we know it well. They do everything in order to divide the bishops. If just one of you withdraws a little from the others and hints at even a reserve of esteem for the Communist Party, leftists everywhere will converge upon him through the press to take advantage of the situation. The Polish bishops have opposed this tactic with absolute unity.
That bishop was the archbishop of Krakow—Karol Wojtyla—the future pope and saint. Luciani and his fellow bishops followed Wojtyla’s council, and after they published their response, Pope Paul VI said to Cardinal Luciani: “We thank you, for what you did for us on that occasion.”
When Paul VI died in 1978, Cardinal Luciani was elected pope, giving an address as gentle as it was profound. He died only a month later, but the love he inspired as the “smiling pope” can still be seen in videos of him speaking to the faithful. In 2003, Pope John Paul II formally declared Albino Luciani a “servant of God,” the first step towards possible sainthood.
Because he died so suddenly, however, his death has been the subject of lurid speculation and wild conspiracy theories. Although they’ve all been decisively debunked, the idea that John Paul I was the victim of foul play persists. The only silver lining here is that all the “controversy” about John Paul I’s death has kept his name in the public’s consciousness—albeit for all the wrong reasons—and given his supporters an opportunity to rescue his life and legacy from the myth-makers.
A major step forward in that regard was the publication, The Smiling Pope: The Life and Teaching of John Paul I by Raymond and Lauretta Seabeck. This was followed by A Passionate Adventure by Lori Pieper, OSF, which collects and translates Albino Luciani’s best writings into English. In 2012, Pieper, who helped found the Pope John Paul I Association and heads “Tau Cross Books and Media,” helped organize a conference on the centennial of Pope John Paul I’s birth. It was a tremendous success, and plans are now in the works to publish the conference’s talks.
What has struck so many of John Paul I’s admirers is how much he reminds them of Pope Francis. In many ways, John Paul I prefigured Francis—in his love for the poor, opposition to extravagance, zeal for moral reform, emphasis on the mercy and tenderness of God, ardent devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a new style of evangelization. As Pieper notes, John Paul I would have agreed with Francis that the world should not be hearing a Church that utters a continual, “No.” Rather, Albino Luciani “had a sense that what the Church really needs to present of herself is the very best.”
That would be fitting; for that is what John Paul I always gave his beloved Church.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.