Forty years ago, Pope John Paul I (Albino Luciani) was found lifeless in his bed on the morning of September 28th. Elected on August 26, 1978, after the death of Pope Paul VI, Luciani took the name of John Paul I - the first pope to have two names. He wanted to continue the work of his predecessors Paul VI and John XXIII. Pope John Paul I died suddenly after only 33 days of his pontificate, one of the shortest in history.
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 beautiful 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, and imaginary characters throughout history. Those letters have been published in a collection entitled Illustrissimi
, “to the illustrious ones.” The letters contain profound messages to people of all times.
His 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.
May this good and gentle shepherd and Servant of God intercede for us and smile upon each one of us, reminding us each day of God’s mercy and goodness.
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.
Ostensus et datus
He was shown to us and he gave himself to us, with his soul, to the limits of his strength.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We have come together for the Eucharist in sorrow at the sudden death of our Holy Father John Paul I, and in this liturgy we bring our sorrow to the light of the love of Jesus Christ, which is stronger than death. We want to draw close to this love, to purify ourselves in it and to prepare ourselves for the resurrection and eternal life.
Brothers and Sisters! It has not yet been a month from the day in which we were together, filled with joy, in this cathedral, to thank God for having given us the new Pope John Paul I. Then we couldn’t foresee how soon he would be taken and we still cannot understand the reason. “God gave, God has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord”, we can say with Job. In the history of the popes there is a person similar to him in his destiny and who could help us to bear this better; this is Marcellus II, next to whom John Paul I has now found his final resting place.
It was the year 1555: The Council of Trent had been interrupted without concrete results and there did not seem any possibility of it beginning. Thus the Church remained torn between renewal and reform, as if sunk in a deep depression, unable to pull itself out. Thus in one of the shortest conclaves in history, Cardinal Cervini was elected by acclamation. He was one of the presidents of the Council of Trent, a person who even in that obscure period had tried to live the Gospel in a credible way to bring to fulfilment the “Christian reality” from his deepest center, as a goal of greatest importance. He began immediately with actions that attracted attention and brought a refreshing breeze. He refused the ostentation of the papal coronation and began with a very simple ceremony, which saved enormous sums which ordinarily would have been spent for such ceremonies. He decided that half of it would be used to cover papal debts and the other half would be distributed to the poor so that the day of his installation would be above all a day of joy for the poor.
Rome was, at that time as now, stamped with the sign of violence. But she changed her face, men put down their arms and turned over a new page. The general of the Augustinians, Father Serepando, said that he had prayed for a pope who could renew and restore honour to three words fallen into disrepute: church, council, reform, and he considered that with this election he had been heard. There were no preferences for his relatives. Rather he let them know that they needn’t come to Rome. He did not meddle in the disputes of the factions, but he called all to peace and he lived his mission, from the heart of the Eucharist, in a manner which had long since become unknown.
After 22 days he died. And another Augustinian, Parvenio, applied to him with sorrow the words which Virgil had once written for another Marcellus: Ostensus est nobis, non datus. (He was only shown to us, not given.) In spite of this, historians of the papacy affirm that this pontificate of only 22 days represented a true turnabout, a point of departure, a great step from which there would be no return. The door was thrown open. The reform had turned into a reform; that is, there could no longer be a return to a comfortable existence, but rather an aiming towards the center of the faith, and the church began again to live.
Ostensus non datus: shown to us but not given. This is what we would like to say about Pope John Paul I, whose smile conquered the attention and gaze of the world. “The Pope of the Smile” the Italians called him with affection, and the whole world agreed. The morning of his death, when Cardinal Confalonieri entered the room of the dead man, his face was only slightly inclined and in his expression was still present that inimitable smile which had made this man stand out in a particular way. This smile was not a mask, behind which a person can hide himself, nor was it a studied gesture to obtain something, but the expression, unconscious and natural of a soul transparent and luminous to its very depths. Yes, it is not a question of a gift received from nature, but rather something acquired from Jesus Christ, living at an ever-deeper level. We can glimpse a part of his spiritual journey from his letters, gathered together in this very beautiful book, Illustrissimi, which in its simplicity, serenity and greatness has remained as his enduring testament.
Particularly moving is his letter to Therese of Lisieux with whom he had a special intimate affinity. He says to her,
Love in little things. Often this is the only kind possible. I never had the chance to jump into a river to save a drowning man; I have been very often asked to lend something, to write letters, to give simple and easy instructions. I have never met a mad dog; instead I have met some irritating flies and mosquitoes. I have never had persecutors beat me but many people disturb me with noises in the street, with the volume of the television turned up too high or unfortunately with making noise in drinking soup. To help, however, one can not take it amiss, to be understanding; to remain calm and smiling (as much as possible) in such occasions is to love one’s neighbour without rhetoric in a practical way.
He also remembers the name which Dante gave Our Lord, “Lord of all courtesy.” He finds this Lord in Sacred Scripture, speaking of the faults and stubbornness which he had to put up with in his apostles. He finally told them, “You are those who have borne with me in my trials.” What?! There came to his mind the saying of the great Teresa. “A sad saint is a sorry saint.”
He also tells a little parable in which he himself is reflected. “An Irishman died whose life had not been overflowing with good works. At the time of judgment he stood in line waiting his turn. He looks and sees the Lord turning over the cards of the various people and he says to the first: ‘I was hungry, you gave me to eat. Heaven!’ To the second, ‘I was thirsty, you gave me to drink. Heaven!’ To the third, ‘I was naked, you gave me clothes. Heaven!’ The Irishman’s heart was more and more uneasy because he had never done any of that. Trembling, he stepped before the judge, not daring to look at him. But glancing up timidly he noticed in his eyes something like a hidden, furtive smile. The Lord took out his card and told him, “Well, there’s not really much here. But once I was sad and you told me a joke which made me laugh. On your way to Heaven!’”
Such was John Paul I. That’s how he was. He 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.
However, he was certainly not a simple-minded, good little old man, unaware of the gravity of live and the reality of today. I have personally seen, in Latin America, with what gratitude and relief his words on the theology of liberation were received – that it is not a theology because it is not founded on God but rather on the struggle between the classes, and it does not aim at liberty but rather the dictatorship of the party. How simple and great are his words: “It is not true, Ubi Lenin, ibi Jerusalem – where Lenin is, there is Jerusalem.” And what was our gratitude when he condemned that false creativity in the liturgy which does not celebrate the common mystery of the Church but honours one’s own “creativism,” precluding and harming in the way for many access to the renewed liturgy.
What importance there was to have broken the deadly silence of the West concerning Lebanon. We were convinced quite willingly that there were only a few privileged people, probably fascists, defending their interest. A Lebanese once told me sadly, “For you, oil is more important than the spirit.” We have turned our gaze elsewhere, in order not to see because we didn’t want to risk our interests. But he stripped the veil away and made us see that between the panislamic aspiration to power and the social utopia of the Palestinians, there was a small Christian minority which was trampled on.
Ostensus, non datus – he was shown to us, not given, Can we truly say that? No, I hold that the correct formulation should be: Ostensus et datus – he was shown to us and he gave himself to us, with his soul, to the limits of his strength.
On the death of Cardinal Dopfner, he mentioned the consoling figure of St. Christopher who carried Christ across the rivers of history. On the death of Pope Paul VI, there shone the light of the transfiguration of Christ. Pope John Paul I departed during the night of the feast of St. Michael called by tradition the “Psychopomp” the escort of souls, who escorts it through the night of death to the light of the Lord. He was buried on the day of St. Francis of Assisi, the amiable saint that he resembled so much.
For us believers it is not foolishness. It was the authentic expression of the fact that faith has transformed time, which is no longer the sum of anonymous days, the empty net of death in which some day or another we will be caught without escape. Time has been transformed. By the action of the Lord, it has become the history of God, men who proceed from that history and who accompany us, consoling us, acting as our guides, as symbols of hope and faith. Time is no longer the net of death, but rather the hand of God’s mercy held out, who supports and seeks us. His saints are the columns of light who show us the way, transforming it certainly into the path of salvation while we pass through the darkness of earth.
From now on, John Paul I too will belong to that light. The one who was given us for only 33 days; from him, however, there shines a light which can no longer be taken from us. It is for this that we now want to thank the Lord with our whole hearts. Amen.
Having accomplished that feat (in a remarkably short amount of time), he accomplished another great feat by the very fact of his relatively brief papacy. It was that very briefness that led the cardinal-electors to look beyond Italy for a shepherd of the Church. It was John Paul the First's seemingly premature death that opened the door to the election of John Paul the Great. Had he had a long papacy, or had someone else been elected to succeed Paul VI, it is a near certainty that we never would have had Karol Wojtyla as pope.
We might have had a John Paul the Second, that is, someone other than Karol Wojtyla, but we would not have had a John Paul the Great.
No, the cardinals did not get it wrong the first time. The Holy Spirit knew what He was doing in guiding the election of Albino Luciani and in bringing him to the Father's house after he had accomplished his mission of preparing the way for the Rock who would lead the Church from the dawn to the bright day. That was the mission of Albino Luciani, John Paul I, that was his role, to prepare the Church and the world for he who would come after him.
Excerpt from “To Jesus: I Write in Trepidation”
By Cardinal Albino Lucini, Patriarch of Venice
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.
Here is the link to Illustrissimi
, the full collection of Pope John Paul I’s letters, written when he was Patriarch of Venice: http://www.papaluciani.com/eng/teachings/letters/illustrious.htm
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CEO
Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation