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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

The Smiling Pope

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 28, 2008


            On that morning at the end of September in 1978, thirty years ago, a stunned world awoke to hear of the death of a pope. The world press announced that John Paul I had died suddenly during the night, barely a month—just 34 days—after ascending to the papal throne. At the time of his election on August 26, Cardinal Albino Luciani was little known outside of Italy . But during his brief time in the See of Peter, he had captured the world’s heart with his simple, unfeigned warmth and humility. He had already become known the world over as “The Smiling Pope”.


            I have long had a place in my heart for this simple, good man. He was the pope at the time of my wedding to Elizabeth, at Saint Joan of Arc’s parish in Cumberland, Rhode Island, on September 9, 1978—not even two weeks into his pontificate, and it was probably the first time I heard reference made to “John Paul, our pope” in the liturgy of the Mass. Later, as I delved a little more deeply into this short-term pope, I discovered a wealth of learning; an abundance of insight; and the amazing life story of a warm and humble man of God.

 

            I wish that more people knew that story. However brief his micro-papacy was, I felt that Papa Luciani (as he is still known affectionately throughout Italy ) deserved to be better remembered. Keeping his memory alive has become something of a minor cause for me (maybe there’s a book there someday—who knows?). So on this, the 30th anniversary of his death, I thought it only right and proper to share with you something of the life and teachings of this remarkable religious leader.

 

            The election of the diminutive, soft-spoken Cardinal Luciani to the papacy on that late summer day thirty years ago was a surprise to almost everyone outside of the College of Cardinals. But Luciani had been chosen pope with remarkable speed, on just the fourth ballot, on the very first day of balloting.

 

            As crowds watched the tiny chimney connected to the stove inside St. Peter’s, where the ballots of  each round of voting were burned, predictions of a long, drawn-out conclave seemed to be confirmed. If no candidate had been elected, damp straw would be added to the burning ballots to make the smoke turn black; white smoke would symbolize the election of a new pope. After the fourth ballot, however, the smoke that poured forth from the chimney seemed an ambiguous gray. Many assumed it was black, and so turned to leave. But when Cardinal Pericle Felici, dean of the College of Cardinals, stepped out of the great central door of St. Peter’s onto the balcony, all those present knew that, remarkably, a new pope had already been chosen.

 

            “Nuntio vobis gaudium magnum,” Cardinal Felice announced in Latin: “I announce to you a great joy”. “Hambemus papem.” “We have a pope.” After Luciani’s name was announced, the new pope was led out onto the balcony as well—a small man, perhaps five foot three or four inches tall; eyes twinkling behind round spectacles; his hair sticking out beneath his skullcap, slightly disheveled; and bearing already the unmistakable, slightly impish smile that would become his trademark.

 

            Luciani had taken the first double name in the history of the papacy: John Paul, “Primus,” he said, “The First”—because, he added, “there will soon be a ‘Second’.” He had chosen the name in honor of his two immediate predecessors, John XXIII, who had first named him a bishop, and Paul VI, who had named him a cardinal. It was a sign that Luciani would continue their policies, including the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

 

            “I have neither Pope John’s wisdom of heart nor the preparation and culture of Pope Paul,” the new pope told the crowd gathered to hear him. “But I am now in their place, and so I must seek to serve the church. I hope you will help me with your prayers.”

 

            For his papal motto, John Paul I chose a single word: Humilitas. Humility. Not because he personally excelled in that virtue, he said; but because it was the virtue he most wanted the church to exemplify during the time of his pontificate.

 

            Luciani moved quickly to do away with some of the pomp that had surrounded the papacy. At his coronation (which he renamed his “installation”), he refused to wear the traditional tiara, or Triple Crown, worn by popes for centuries. Instead, he put on a simple bishop’s miter. He shortened the ceremony, and moved it outside into St. Peter’s Square, so more could attend and see it. He refused to be carried in the sedia gestatoria—the portable throne of the popes, and instead walked to the ceremony himself. (Later, he would reluctantly agree to reinstating the sedia gestatoria because his short stature made it impossible for the assembled crowds to see him.)

 

            He remained, through his tenure as pope, a simple and unassuming man, always uncomfortable with the trappings of office. He never moved too far, it seemed, from his simple origins in the mountainous region of northern Italy .

 

            Albino Luciani was born of October 17, 1912, in the small town of Canale d’Agordo, in the Veneto region between Venice and the Austrian border. A frail infant, he was baptized immediately by a midwife, who didn’t expect him to survive the night. Throughout his childhood, he was sickly, suffering from bronchitis, pneumonia, and other respiratory ailments.

 

            His mother, Bortola, was a nurse’s assistant; his father, Giovanni, was a bricklayer, who spent much of each year away from the family, as a migrant worker in Germany and Austria . His mother was a devout Catholic, who led her children in daily prayers; his father was a dedicated socialist, who would often speak of the exploitation and needs of the workers, and discuss with his children the events of the day. Both wanted their children to learn, to study, and to rise above the poverty into which they had been born.

 

            They went to school barefoot most of the year, and food was often scarce. But Bortola, whom the future pope described as “very sweet, but very severe,” insisted that they say their prayers—and do their homework. Early in life, young Albino became enthralled by the preaching and holy simplicity of the Capuchin friars who would visit the area, and soon had decided upon the priesthood as his calling.

 

            At first, however, his father, good anti-clerical socialist that he was, refused to sign Albino’s application to the junior seminary at Belluno. But in time his wife’s persistence, and his son’s obvious desire, wore him down, and he relented. “We must make this sacrifice,” he agreed. But then, pointing to the crucifix on the kitchen wall of their humble abode, Giovanni told his son: “That Jesus of yours was a worker, too, you know. He remembered the workers, and died for them. When you become a priest, you must be like him.”

 

            At the seminary in Belluno, Albino’s warmhearted personality and eager mind made a deep impression upon teachers and fellow-students alike. “He was always amiable, quiet, serene,” one of his classmates later said, “unless you said something inaccurate—then he would fly at you like a spring. In front of him, you always had to speak carefully. Any muddled thinking, and you were in trouble!”

 

            Luciani was ordained to the priesthood in 1935, and spent two years in the parish until returning to the seminary as the vice-rector. When he was given the honorary title of monsignor, a friend suggested that he wear the customary red-trimmed cassock to which those who bore that designation were entitled. “Oh, come on!” Albino groaned, “You know I have no time for that nonsense.” (It is said, actually, that he used a somewhat more colorful descriptive for “nonsense”.)

 

            When Mussolini and the Fascists took power in Italy , the Luciani family joined the opposition. When the war came, and Mussolini allied himself with Hitler, Albino’s younger brother, Edoardo, went underground to fight with the anti-fascist partisans, and his sister, Antonia, served as a partisan courier in northern Italy . For his part, Albino also assisted with the partisans efforts from his position at the seminary in Belluno. “He wove the threads of Catholic resistance in our town,” one resident said after the war. He hid Jews escaping from persecution in Rome within the walls of the seminary. He served as a go-between in negotiating the release of local men from both Fascist and Communist prisons.

 

When the war finally ended, Albino continued his work at the seminary. Placed in charge of religious education in the diocese, he authored a book for teachers, Catechetica in Briciole (Catechism in Crumbs) which came to be used throughout Italy . In 1950, received his doctorate degree in sacred theology from the Gregorian University in Rome , with a thesis on the 19th century radical theologian Antonio Rosmini.

During a visit to Belluno, the patriarch of Venice , Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, realized that Luciani was a priest of extraordinary gifts. When Cardinal Roncalli became Pope John XXIII in 1958, he attempted to name Luciani bishop of the vacant diocese of Vittorio Veneto , in northern Italy . Luciani demurred, citing his lack of qualifications and his poor health (he had already been hospitalized twice for tuberculosis). Pope John reassured him, and guaranteed that the mountain air in Vittorio Veneto was just the cure that Luciani needed!

 

His smiling warmth and total lack of pomp soon won the hearts of the people of his diocese, priests and laity alike. To everyone, he was simply Don Albino (Father Albino), and when he visited parishes, he would dress as a simple priest, a custom he would continue throughout his career. Sometimes, he would go unrecognized because of his unassuming ways. Meeting with a group in one parish, he asked for whom they were waiting. “For the bishop,” they told him. “But it looks as though he’s late.”

 

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Albino said, finally introducing himself. “I believe I saw him arrive a little while ago.”

 

Driving to an early morning Mass one cold and rainy morning, he spotted a woman and her young son hurrying along, heads bent against the wind. When he asked where they were going, the woman said “To church,” where he son was scheduled to serve the Mass for the bishop; but now, she said, said she was afraid they were going to be late.

 

When the procession later entered the back of church with Bishop Luciani, now vested, he spotted the woman in the congregation, and whispered to her, with a smile, “You see, we all got here on time.”

 

But there were problems at Vittorio Veneto , as well. In 1962, two priests got involved in a scam that cost numerous small investors their life savings—over 2 billion lire, tens of thousands of dollars.

 

Bishop Luciani called a meeting of his 400 priests, and announced that the diocese would repay every lire the priests had stolen. There also would be no civil immunity for the priests, either, he emphasized; they would be punished to the full extent of the law (and both went to jail for several years). To repay part of the debt, he would sell all objects of worth in the diocesan treasury; one of the buildings owned by the diocese would be sold, as well. “In this scandal, there is lesson for us all,” he said. “We must be a poor church.”

 

Concern for the poor was always at the heart of his vision of ministry. In 1966, he traveled to Burundi in Africa , to oversee charitable efforts. When he became patriarch of Venice in 1969, his concern for the poor continued. Within days of his arrival in the city, an army of poor folk seeking assistance descended on his doorstep. He greeted each one individually, listened to their problems, and did what he could to help—often finding them jobs within the diocese.

After becoming patriarch of Venice , he sold a gold cross and chain that had been given to him by Pope John in order to donate the money to an orphanage for handicapped children that was threatened with insolvency.

 

As president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, he proposed that wealthy dioceses in the West should donate 1% of their annual income to poorer dioceses in developing countries—not as charity, he said, “but as something owed, to compensate for the injustice being committed by the consumer world against the developing world.”

 

Visiting hospitals around Venice on a weekly basis, Luciani would charm the patients with his smiles and jokes; but the honor guard of doctors, nurses, and administrators that insisted on following him around the hospital irritated him greatly. “Don’t let me take your precious time,” he told them. “I can find my way around on my own.” In time, Luciani figured out that if he visited on Sunday evenings, there were fewer people around, and he could visit patients unbothered by his retinue.

 

His door was always open, and his telephone rang constantly. When a priest called him at lunchtime, and was told by the nun who answered the phone to call back later, Luciani reproved her gently. From now on, he was to be interrupted for calls, even at lunch, he said. If any Italian calls someone at midday, instead of eating lunch himself, the cardinal pointed out, it must really be an emergency!

 

But even with his busy schedule, Albino Luciani found time to study and to write. He wrote several books, the most famous of which was Illustrissimi, imaginary conversations with personalities from literature and history, including Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and even Pinocchio. In his letter to Mark Twain, Luciani’s deep humility shines through:

 

“Just as there are different books, there are different bishops. Some are like eagles, who glide at great heights with magnificent documents; others are like skylarks that sing the praises of the Lord in a marvelous way; finally, others are poor wrens that, on the lowest branch of the Church tree, only squeak, trying to express some thought on the broadest themes. I, Mark Twain, belong to the last category. I am just a poor wren.”

 

But many of his fellow bishops felt differently. Visiting Venice in 1972, Pope Paul VI publicly placed his red stole around Luciani’s shoulders, a gesture many interpreted as a sign that Paul wanted the patriarch of Venice to be his successor. The next year, Paul named Luciani to the College of Cardinals.

 

When the 1978 conclave searched for a successor to Paul, the quiet, unassuming Luciani, a man of deep warmth, great learning, impeccable pastoral skills, and moderate theology, soon emerged as an obvious choice. He was “God’s candidate,” Britain ’s Cardinal Basil Hume said later. “Once it had happened, it seemed totally and entirely right… We felt as though our hands were being guided as we write his name on the paper.”

In accepting election to the papacy, an overwhelmed Luciani added to his colleague cardinals, “May God forgive you for what you have done on my behalf.” He would do what was required of him, he said. But he confided to close friends that his reign would be a short come. “The foreigner will come after me,” he told one: the one who had sat across from him at the conclave would succeed him as Pope. (Later, when the seating plan for the conclave was checked, the “foreigner” turned out to be none other that Cardinal Karol Woytjyla of Poland —who would, indeed, come to be Pope John Paul II, just a short time later.)

 

A little more than a month after his election, Pope John Paul I was dead. He died in his sleep on the night of September 28, 1978, thirty years ago, this very day. The official cause of death was listed as a heart attack. But there was no autopsy, and conflicting accounts soon lead to rumors, and conspiracy theories, and persistent charges that he had been murdered. Some say he was killed by liberals because he was too conservative; others by conservatives because he was too liberal. Others say it’s because be was going to expose deep corruption in the Vatican Bank and other offices of the curia. Others say that he was just a weak, sick man whose body gave out under the pressures of an overwhelming and demanding position.  

 

“He was shown to us, not given,” a German archbishop named Joseph Ratzinger said in a homily following the death of Pope Luciani. He was like a comet who flashed briefly across the sky, lighting up the world and the church, if only for an instant, said Cardinal Confalonieri.

 

On the day of John Paul’s funeral, St. Peter’s Square was all but flooded by a steady, torrential downpour that just would not let up. The assembled thousands-- world celebrities, heads of state, common men and women-- were soaked to bone by the rains of heaven. The untrammeled grief of the people of Rome reminded many observers of the mourning that had accompanied the death of the beloved John XXIII.

 

But it’s never about how long we live, but about how well we live. Even in its mere 34 days, the papacy of John Paul I had touched the world deeply. His had been the smile of a saint. He had touched the world, and had given us just the barest glimpse of the sorriso di dio—the very smile of God.


 


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