His papacy was extremely short – only 33 days – but Pope John Paul I made a lasting impact. “One month was enough for him to have conquered hearts and, for us, it was a month to love him intensely,” affirmed Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri at his funeral Mass, “It is not length which characterizes a life in a pontificate, but rather the spirit that fills it.”
Born in 1912, Cardinal Albino Luciani was Patriarch of Venice when he was elected Supreme Pontiff in the August 1978 conclave following the death of Pope Paul VI. This first post-conciliar pope immediately indicated a freshness in the Church in making the historic choice to be called “John Paul the First,” honoring his two immediate predecessors.
People were touched by the warmth and kindness of John Paul I when he appeared before the crowd gathered in Saint Peter’s Square, and he quickly became known as the “Smiling Pope.” Following his sudden death on September 28, 1978, then-Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, observed at a Mass for him, “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.”
The plan for his pontificate, declared the Holy Father to “the world and to the city,” Urbi et Orbi, was that the Church intended “to safeguard the world, which thirsts for a life of love, from dangers that would attack it. The Gospel calls all of its children to place their full strength, indeed their life, at the service of mankind in the name of the charity of Christ.” This is our ageless mission, one we still pursue today.
“Jesus truly has words that lead us to eternal life,” Pope John Paul I professed in an address given only hours before he went to the house of our heavenly Father. “We are convinced that it is necessary for us to emphasize this element, in order to complete our message and to model our teaching on that of Jesus,” he then said. “More than ever before, we must help our people to realize just how much they need Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Mary. He is their Savior, the key to their destiny and to the destiny of all humanity.”
Throughout his priestly ministry, Albino Luciani was a skilled teacher of the faith. In 1949, he published his first book, Catechetica in Briciole (Catechesis in Crumbs), on instructing the faith in a simple way. Saint John Paul II would attest to his zeal and gifts as a catechist, saying, “To all of us he gave an example of catechesis at once popular and concentrated on the essential, one made up of simple words and actions that were able to touch the heart” (Catechesi Tradendae, 4).
Like the Lord himself, the Smiling Pope liked to teach by telling stories. For example, a few years before his election, he published the book Illustrissimi (To the Illustrious Ones), where he taught lessons in the form of letters to various historical figures. In his first Wednesday audience, in speaking of the importance of doing things God’s way and how his commandments are good for us, he told the story of a foolish man who did not like the rules for his car and, instead of gas, wanted to put champagne in the tank.
John Paul I’s remaining Wednesday audiences were dedicated to faith, hope and love. Foreseeing what we now call the New Evangelization, in his talk on faith he said there are “certain and immutable truths” of our Catholic faith and “we must walk along the way of these truths, understanding them more and more, bringing ourselves up-to-date, proposing them in a form suited to the new times.” In a world marked by so many troubles, the Pope said in his next audience, firm and unshakable hope can happen when “one is attached to three truths: God is almighty, God loves me immensely, God is faithful to promises. And it is he, the God of mercy, who kindles trust in me.” Then in his final talk on love, he again stressed that God “is infinite good and will be our eternal happiness: money, pleasure, the fortunes of this world, compared with him, are just fragments of good and fleeting moments of happiness. It would not be wise to give so much of ourselves to these things and little of ourselves to Jesus.”
When this newly-elected pope died after only a few weeks, many wondered what it meant. Certainly, as a matter of history if not providence, Pope John Paul I prepared the way for Pope John Paul II.
“Personally I’m altogether convinced he was a saint,” Cardinal Ratzinger would later say. “Because of his great goodness, simplicity, humility. And for his great courage. Because he also had the courage to say things with great clarity, even going against current opinions. And also for his great culture of faith. He was not just a simple parish priest who had become patriarch by chance. He was a man of great theological culture and of great pastoral sense and experience.”
On this anniversary of his death, let us remember and give thanks to God for the life, ministry and papacy of Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul the First.