Pope John Paul I – The smiling Pope; on the anniversary of his death

Pope John Paul I – the smiling pope whose papacy was one of the shortest ever – just 33 days, died just 33 years ago the vacant seat then being filled by Blessed John Paul II whose pontificate lasted 27 years!

To many Catholics the events of 33 years ago are just a moment in history, but at the time this ‘smiling pope’ had won hearts and minds of Catholics the world over. Albino Luciano took the name John Paul – the names of the two previous Popes; John XIII and Paul VI. If one can compare, John Paul I was, to most of us a refreshing change from the aristocratic demeanour of Montini (Paul VI).

Time Magazine reported the Conclave that elected Luciano:

‘The Cardinals knew what they wanted: a warm and humble man
Seated at a table in front of the Sistine Chapel altar, the Cardinal solemnly intoned the name written on each ballot. “Luciani . . . Luciani . . . Luciani . . .” Beside him sat two other Cardinal scrutatores (vote counters) who carefully plucked the ballots from a silver chalice, unfolded them and passed them to their colleague. It was the fourth and final ballot of the astonishing one-day conclave that gave the Catholic world its 263rd Pope: Albino Cardinal Luciani, 65, Patriarch of Venice.

As the counting went on, two Cardinals who had entered the conclave as favorites listened attentively. Both are highly placed in the Vatican’s powerful bureaucracy, the Curia: Sergio Pignedoli, who sat just to the right of the altar, and Sebastiano Baggio, who sat just to the left. But the name that kept resounding toward the shadowy ceiling of the chapel be longed to no seasoned veteran of the Curia. It belonged to a Cardinal who had never drafted documents from the dry heart of the Vatican at all, or served overseas in the papal diplomatic service. He had, in fact, only rarely been outside Italy in his life.

The waiting world was surprised, then pleased by the new Pope, a lifelong pastor and teacher who seemed to show a rare blend of strength and humility, a fine gift for words, a reassuring balance between kindness and worldly practicality. But how had he come to be chosen? And why? Had some kind of secret combine among the Princes of the Church brought Luciani to the fore? Or a compromise that, despite formal assertions of happiness, really left nobody happy?

Often the answers to such questions have remained locked in mystery, protected by the wall of secrecy that attends the conclave, the vows of silence taken by the Cardinals as they enter and are sealed from the outside world. It is clear that Luciani came to power through no accident, but as a result of a spontaneous consensus that evolved from three agreements reached during the lengthy pre-conclave period that followed the death of Pope Paul VI on Aug. 6.

Probably half of the 111 Cardinal-electors went into the conclave still undecided. But most were fairly convinced that the Pope would, once again, have to be an Italian. Even many Asians and Africans, whose numbers are growing and whose concerns often differ from their brother Cardinals in Europe and the New World, conceded that an Italian was needed to handle the delicate role the papacy still must play in Italy’s uncertain politics. Beyond that some Cardinals feared that any non-Italian might give a threatening new tilt to the Vatican.

The second consensus, resisted to the end by some members of the Curia, was that the church, whatever its farflung political and administrative problems, needed a pastoral Pope. “It is one thing to interpret the faith and another to convey it to the people in the parishes,” said one ranking Curia prelate. “That is something that the bishops—whatever their theology—understand better than the Curialists at their little desks.”

Then, after 33 days Pope John Paul I was found to have died in his bed in the papal apartments. We were shocked. We asked ‘how could this be’? The Holy Father had appeared in good health, and we had heard no history of any medical condition that could have taken our Holy Father so quickly.

Almost immediately the conspiracy theorists had their day. The Holy Father had been murdered. It is true that during his brief time on the Throne of Peter there had been rumours that he was about to deal with irregularities in the Vatican Banking system, and that some Curial Cardinals where not relishing the thought of this. There were Masonic conspiracies, and some too foolish to mention. Even in the intervening years books have been written speculating ‘How the Pope was Murdered’.It was not helped (at that time) that the Holy See allowed no post-mortem, and fended off any questions that might prove embarrasing to them. We, the laity, where assured the Holy Father had died of ‘natural causes’ – and we believe that – Rome had spoken.

I reproduce the Holy Father’s funeral homily which says far more about this saintly man, called home to God too soon(for us).

During the celebration of the funeral rite for Pope John Paul I, which took place in St Peter’s Square at four p.m. on Wednesday, 4 October, the Dean of the Sacred College, Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri delivered the following homily.

Venerable Brothers in Jesus Christ,

No one would have thought that less than two months after we celebrated the funeral rites in St Peter’s Square of Pope Paul VI, who died suddenly, we would once again be gathered here to say our final farewell to his successor, our Holy Father John Paul I. He died so suddenly after only 33 days of his pontificate.

We ask ourselves, why so quickly? The Apostle tells us why in the well-known and beloved, explanation: “How deep his wisdom and knowledge and how impossible to penetrate his motives or understand his methods!… Who could ever know the mind of the Lord?” (Rom 11:33). Thus is presented to us, in all its immense and almost oppressive greatness, the unfathomable mystery of life and of death. We have scarcely had the time to see the new Pope. Yet one month was enough for him to have conquered hearts — and, for us, it was a month to love him intensely. It is not length which characterizes a life in a pontificate, but rather the spirit that fills it. He passed as a meteor which unexpectedly lights up the heavens and then disappears, leaving us amazed and astonished. Already the Book of Wisdom (4:13) spoke of this when telling of “the just man”: “Coming to perfection in such short time he achieved long life.” “Consumatus in brevi, explevit tempora multa”. The funeral prayer which we are soon to recite brings this comforting touch of reality: “Grant O Lord that he may praise you without end in heaven, he who on earth served you with a constant profession of faith.”

Instinctive goodness

In Pope John Paul we greeted and venerated the Vicar of Christ, Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pastor of the universal Church; but in the brief contact had with him, we were quickly struck and fascinated by his instinctive goodness, by his innate modesty, by his sincere simplicity in deed and word. The very papal allocutions themselves — the few that he was able to give — reflect this quality. It began with the first discourse that he gave in the Sistine Chapel on the day after his election (for him, how unexpected and how painful!). Through his speeches we are able to get a glimpse of the great lines that would have been the programme of his pontificate: the authenticity and integrity of faith, the perfection of Christian life, the love of great discipline in the many activities that lead to the growth of the kingdom of God as well as the spiritual and temporal prosperity of all mankind.

How could one forget the homily read on the occasion when the Holy Father took possession of the Cathedral of Rome, St John Lateran? With absolute respect for the liturgical readings, he knew how to illustrate clearly and apply the fundamental concepts contained in them. He applied them to the plans and expectations of the Church in Rome, to the tasks of the spiritual development of the faithful and to the primary duties of his pontifical mission.

What emerges even more in his loving gift of self was his manner of teaching. He knew well how to translate with ease and joy the lofty theological doctrine into the more accessible language of a catechist. He taught with clarity the way of Christian formation, so necessary (as pastoral experience confirms everyday) in order to keep the sense of the divine in the holy people of God as it daily advances towards the goal of eternal happiness.

The perfect teacher

He was the perfect teacher: the time that he spent at Belluno, at Vittorio Veneto, at Venice witnessed to this. His few weeks of ministry as the Supreme Pastor were enough to reveal him as such to the world as it listened both near and afar, to the sound of his fatherly lessons. All understood that he was speaking in order to reach their soul. This was true even when, with wonderful humility and the wisest psychological intuition, he spoke directly to children “in order that they might help the Pope”, (as he so graciously put it). Everybody understood that he was speaking to the little ones in order that the adults would hear and understand. That delicacy, so evident to all, drew from his listeners both attention and action.

Was it the need for spirituality, now more deeply felt because of the general neglect of spiritual values that pushed the multitudes towards the Pope? How else can we explain the very crowded audiences of Wednesdays? Visitors came from everywhere! How else can we explain the crowds which literally filled St Peter’s Square at midday each Sunday, a time dedicated to greeting the family and joining together in the recitation of the “Angelus”?

Waiting patiently

Who has not been moved — and deeply moved — by seeing in these recent days the endless, spectacular lines of the faithful, of Rome and of all the world? They moved step by step, along the entire colonnade of Bernini, whether under a scorching sun or pouring rain. Finally, after two or more hours of patient and heroic waiting, they would reach the Sala Clementina and the Vatican Basilica to see yet once again the Pope of goodness and of the smile.

Yes, because before a world submerged in hatred and in violence, Pope John Paul has been himself, personally, a message of goodness. He called for peace, he prayed for peace; he had a thirst for justice for all — for the oppressed, the suffering, the poor, the needy in every social category. He exalted labour; he preached charity. And always with a smile on his lips, that smile which never left him, even at the last instant of life. In fact we saw him like that, in the first hours of last Friday. There on his death bed, his head lightly inclined towards the right, his lips were half-open, in his ever present smile. Thus he entered into the peace of the Lord.

Venerable Brothers: Civil leaders, clergy, religious, everyone! Just a while ago we heard that page of the Gospel (John 21:15) which speaks of the threefold question of Jesus and the triple response of the first Apostle: “Peter, do you love me?” “You know that I love you, Lord.” So the pontificate of John Paul was a dialogue of love between father and children — without pause, without hesitation. On the preceding Wednesdays, reminding us of John XXIII, Pope John Paul I spoke of faith and hope. Last Wednesday, he spoke of love. These are the three theological virtues which unite us directly to God. He said that man must always progress, always progress, in everything that is good, up to perfection. This is the law of progress which rules life. First of all one must grow in the love of God and in the love of neighbour. This is his will and testament. It is the will and testament of the Divine Master, Jesus Christ. Amen.


Albino Luciani: Son of Giovanni Luciani and Bortola Tancon, poor working folks; baptized the same day at home by the midwife as he was in danger of death. He entered the seminary at Feltre in October 1923, and the Gregorian seminary at Belluno in October 1928. Deacon on 2 February 1935. Ordained at Belluno, Italy on 7 July 1935. Parish priest and taught religion at the Technical Institute for Miners in Agordo. Rector of the Gregorian seminary from 1937 to 1947. Received his Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Gregorian University, Rome in 1947. Chancellor of the diocese of Belluno in 1947. Bishop of Vittorio Veneto on 15 December 1958. Attended the Second Vatican Council. Patriarch of Venice in 1969. Created Cardinal on 5 March 1973. Pope for less than five weeks.Born17 October 1912 at Canale d’Argordo, Italy as Albino LucianiPapal Ascension26 August 1978; elected on the third ballot during the second day of the conclaveDied28 September 1978 of a heart attack; the cause of death is still much disputed by people who believe he was murderedImagesGallery of images of Pope John Paul IWritingsFirst Message to College of Cardinals and to the World – 27 August 1978
Address to the College of Cardinals30 August 1978
Address to Diplomats Accredited to the Vatican – 31 August 1978
Address to Journalists – 1 September 1978
Homily at his Installation – 3 September 1978
Address to a Group of American Bishops in Ad Limina Visit – 21 September 1978
Address to a Group of Philippine Bishops in Ad Limina Visit – 28 September 1978
Letter to Bishop Aufderbeck on Seventh Centenary of Church – 28 September 1978

A Prayer For The Beatification Cause

Lord Jesus,
You Who gave to us the great joy of venerating
Pope John Paul I as Your Vicar on earth,
and then in Your inscrutable designs,
gave us the immense sorrow of his unexpected departure,
grant us the graces that we ask of You… so that,
sure of his intercession with You,
we may one day venerate him on the altars;
then his goodness and humility presented as an example
to the faithful, will be a perpetual invitation
to translate his teaching into life and to spread serenity and love. Amen.

About Gertrude

Sáncte Míchael Archángele, defénde nos in proélio, cóntra nequítiam et insídias diáboli ésto præsídium.
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4 Responses to Pope John Paul I – The smiling Pope; on the anniversary of his death

  1. Frere Rabit says:

    A good post, Gertrude. There is a good film biography of John Paul I made by the Italian national television network. I watched it in the Franciscan friary at St Onofrio in Rome two years ago while my leg was in plaster and I was watching every video that the Friars of the Atonement had in their library! In the film the most touching parts of the story to me seemed to be his early life and then his remarkable pastoral qualities as a diocesan priest. The cause for his beatification deserves support.


  2. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    “some cardinals feared that any non-Italian Pope might give a threatening new tilt to the Vatican”.
    Threatening who or what? The Vatican bankers? The Mafia?

    What kind of Church leaders do we have here whose fears are so worldly, so disgraceful, so shallow, that they would harbour impoverished thoughts like these? Are we to take such people, such careerists seriously when they also pronounce on religious or liturgical matters? No doubt they were well versed in Church law, canon/liturgical law and so on, but who needs the Church to be subject to nationalist Italian politics? We know that non Italian Popes have been elected (thank God) since these little people held office, but I find that these inadequates strike a chilling note.

    Cardinals like these are the enemy within.


  3. kathleen says:

    Personally I think it was a great mistake the Holy See did not allow a post-mortem on Pope John Paul I. If there was nothing to hide (as I believe was the case), then why not? The uncertainty of the cause of death has since given free rein to the conspiracy theories that continue to emerge to this day.


  4. Gertrude says:

    Absolutely Kathleen, and I agree, Since John Paul’s death we have become aware of ‘Sudden Adult Death Syndrome’, and I do not know if this was the cause of the Holy Father’s death, but it is certainly a possibility It is a shame that more young Catholic’s are not aware of this saintly and humble man whose pontificate promised so much.


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