S+L logo

Remembering a Prophet of the New Evangelization: John Paul I 38 years after his election to the See of Peter

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

August 20, 2016

Pope John Paul I, known as the smiling pope, is pictured at the Vatican in 1978. He served one of the shortest papacies -- 34 days. Born Albino Luciani, he was the cardinal of Venice, Italy, when he was elected pope Aug. 26, 1978. He died Sept. 28. (CNS file photo/L'Osservatore Romano) (Sept. 26, 2012) See JPI-CAUSE Sept. 26, 2012.
Thirty-eight years ago August 26, Cardinal Albino Luciani, Patriarch of Venice was elected Pope after the death of the Servant of God Blessed Paul VI. The conclave of 101 cardinals lasted 2 days and he was elected on the fourth ballot. Luciani took the name of John Paul I – the first pope to have two names. He wanted to continue the work of Pope Paul VI and Pope John XXIII.
Luciani was born in Canale d’Agordo near Belluno, Italy, on October 17, 1912. He entered the seminary at 11 years old, was ordained a priest at 23 years old, and was the Patriarch of Venice from 1969 until he became pope on September 3, 1978. Luciani held a theology degree from Gregorian University in Rome.
Because of his rural background and his ability to explain the catechism with such clarity and simplicity, Pope John Paul I was called “The Peasant Pope.” But he was known most for being “The Smiling Pope.”
During his years as Patriarch of Venice, he wrote letters each week for the Diocesan newspaper to various bibilical, literary, imaginary characters throughout history. The letters contain profound messages to figures and people of all times. (i.e., Empress Maria Teresa of Austria), authors (such as Mark Twain and G.K. Chesterton) and even fictional characters (such as Pinocchio). The letters were originally written for a monthly periodical when Luciani was in Venice, and proved so popular they were collected into a book entitled “Illustrissimi,” “to the illustrious ones.” Aside from the tremendous humor the letters reveal, they model a catechesis in action: meeting people where they are, acknowledging the wisdom they already possess and then gently leading them to consider the Gospel. I wonder how many times Pope Francis has read this book! I am sure he knows parts of it by heart!
While Patriarch of Venice, then-Cardinal Luciani addressed a group of religious women (sisters) and gave his reasons for supporting the all-male priesthood in the Catholic Church:
You will ask: what about ... the priesthood itself? I can say to you: Christ bestowed the pastoral ministry on men alone, on his apostles. Did he mean this to be valid only for a short time, almost as though he made allowances for the prejudice about the inferiority of women prevalent in his time? Or did he intend it to be valid always? Let it be very clear: Christ never accepted the prejudice about the inferiority of women: they are always admirable figures in the Gospels, more so than the apostles themselves. The priesthood, however, is a service given by means of spiritual powers and not a form of superiority. Through the will of Christ, women -- in my judgment -- carry out a different, complementary, and precious service in the church, but they are not "possible priests" ... That does not do wrong to women.
Prophet of the New Evangelization
johnpaul1Pope John Paul I probably never used the expression “new evangelization” but he preached it, lived it and gave it flesh and blood every day of his episcopal and Petrine ministry. Luciani not only anticipated the idea, but preached it and lived it each day of his priestly and episcopal ministry. In a 1968 essay, Luciani argued that Italy was, by then, every bit as much "mission territory" as Africa! In an address to the College of Cardinals the morning after his election, John Paul I left no shadow of a doubt about the mission of the Church under his leadership: "We want to recall to the entire church that her first duty is still evangelization."
John Paul I had a mild, informal, deeply human style. He was a pastor who knew the smell of the sheep. We are unlikely to forget those moving scenes when he called children onto the stage at the end of his audiences, making some fairly profound points in simple language.
John-Paul-I-1-220x300His reign lasted for a brief 33 days, with his sudden death occurring on September 28, 1978. During his brief pontificate, he only had four general audiences. Those days of September 1978 were momentous ones that shook the world and the Church. It was one of the briefest pontificates, but it left a lasting impression. Many inside and outside the Vatican felt that a man of extraordinary humility and goodness had passed their way — like a meteor that lights up the sky and quickly disappears. Here is the link to Cardinal Carlo Confolanieri's homily at John Paul I's funeral mass.
This is the homily that was preached at a memorial mass for Pope John Paul I in the Cathedral of Munich and Freising by then German Archbishop of that diocese, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on October 6, 1978.
In that moving tribute, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said: [Pope John Paul I]... didn’t just tell us a story, he made us a gift of his smile; he allowed us to get a glimpse into the depth of the “human essence” to guess something of paradise lost."
JPI_KW-300x237As we look back over those momentous summer days of 1978, we slowly realize that the mission of Albino Luciani, John Paul I, was to prepare the Church and the world for the one who would come after him in the person of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla - John Paul II. The rest is history.
Many have remarked on the great similarities that exist between John Paul I and the current Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis. They really are kindred spirits and great shepherds of the flock.
The cause for Pope John Paul I’s canonization is now before the Congregation of Saints. This includes a potential miracle attributed to his intercession, of an Italian man who was inexplicably cured of stomach cancer.
Excerpt from “To Jesus: I Write in Trepidation
By Cardinal Albino Lucini, Patriarch of Venice
In “Illustrissimi
At this spectacle of people rushing to a Crucifix for so many centuries and from every part of the world, a question arises: Was this only a great, beneficent man or was He a God? You Yourself gave the answer and anyone whose eyes are not veiled by prejudice but are eager for the light will accept it.
When Peter proclaimed: “You are Christ, the Son of the living God,” You not only accepted this confession but also rewarded it. You have always claimed for Yourself that which the Jews reserved for God. To their scandal You forgave sins, You called Yourself master of the Sabbath, You taught with supreme authority, You declared Yourself the equal of the Father. Several times they tried to stone You as a blasphemer, because You uttered the name of God.
When they finally took You and brought You before the high priest, he asked You solemnly: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” You answered, “I am; and you will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” You accepted even death rather than retract and deny this divine essence of yours.
I have written, but I have never before been so dissatisfied with my writing. I feel as if I had left out the greater part of what could be said of You, that I have said badly what should have been said much better. There is one comfort, however: the important thing is not that one person should write about Christ, but that many should love and imitate Christ. And fortunately – in spite of everything– this still happens.
The full collection of Pope John Paul I’s letters, written when he was Patriarch of Venice can be found here.
CNS file photo/L'Osservatore Romano