Four decades is a very long time, and yet there are bygone occasions so fragrant that their aroma transcends time as if they were flowers in perpetual bloom. August 26, 1978, was one of those rare instances.
On that day, as recorded in the pages of history as well as imprinted in the minds of those who witnessed it, an obscure little Italian priest enchanted the world by becoming Pope John Paul I. His 33-day pontificate was one of the shortest in the Catholic Church’s 2,000 year old history. Yet that was all the time Pope Albino Luciani needed to model the face of unconditional love that transfixed the world.
His radiant smile enthralled humanity, including those of other faiths and even those of no faith whatsoever. Patti Smith, an edgy American punk rock star of that time who once had written, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” in her poem, “Oath”, was astoundingly passionate about the new pope. In her album “Wave”, which Smith dedicated to Luciani, she chanted uncharacteristically,
“Oh, Albino, wave thou art high. Goodbye, goodbye sir, goodbye papa.”
Other lesser known individuals, like Regina Kummer, author of the notable Italian book, Albino Luciani: A Life for the Church, converted to Catholicism because of the pope’s inspiration. And many who were lapsed Catholics fervently returned to their faith as a result of John Paul I’s exemplary life and influential teachings.
There has been no other pope quite like him.
The first John Paul swiftly transformed lives through his enlightening example and his soothing words. During his brief papacy, the world glimpsed a common man of uncommon rectitude.
“Blessed are the meek,” wrote Matthew in the Gospels. Meekness is synonymous with humility; it denotes gentleness as well as fortitude to endure tribulations with patience and forgiveness. To be sure, “Papa” Luciani cultivated and captured this virtue. Indeed, his episcopal motto itself was “Humilitas”. When Saint John XXIII once wrote wisely, “…in the Gospel Jesus teaches us to be gentle and humble; naturally, this is not the same thing as being weak…” he could have had Albino Luciani in mind.
Though John Paul I was meek, he was not weak as evidenced by the daring decisions he made during his tenure as bishop, archbishop, and pope. The soft spoken man was bold in shattering tradition when he believed it served the best interests of the Church.
“I am the little one of once upon a time, I am the one who comes from the fields, I am pure and simple dust; on this dust the Lord has written the episcopal dignity of the illustrious Diocese of Vittorio Veneto,” he proclaimed upon becoming bishop. From the very beginning of his ecclesiastical leadership until the very end, he eschewed the trappings of status and power, even repeatedly referring to himself as “a little man accustomed to silence.”
Throughout his 21 years as a bishop in Vittorio Veneto, Venice, and Rome, he continued living an ascetic life, consuming meager meals, riding in a clunker of a car, and, as patriarch and cardinal, often dressing as an ordinary priest. To the poor he would empty his own pockets, and for the sick in the hospitals he habitually visited, he surreptitiously tucked money under patients’ pillows as he uttered words of encouragement.
Luciani’s love of the poor and downtrodden is legendary. His personal secretary, Monsignor Mario Senigaglia, in 1983 poignantly recalled an incident which illustrates how Luciani, as Patriarch of Venice, served the least among us:
“Within a few days of his arrival in Venice, leaving the study, Luciani noticed the great tide of people…that had filled the waiting rooms. He asked me, ‘Who are they?’ ‘They are the poor…’ He wanted to go and greet them…about sixty or seventy in number. For each he had a smile and a word. Then he said, ‘Remember, the Patriarch’s door is always open. Ask don Mario, and what I can do for you, I will always do it with pleasure.’ ‘Excellence – I mumbled – you will ruin me: they will not leave me in peace.’ He smiled, saying, ‘Somebody will help us.’ The poor…drunkards, released prisoners, women who walked the streets, clients of the nocturnal asylums, and beggars…were his friends. For many of them we found houses and work…”
Not long after arriving in Venice, he stunned and exasperated many of the faithful by selling various diocesan treasures, including a pectoral cross of great value, so that he could contribute to a sanitarium for handicapped children on behalf of the Church.
As pope, Luciani never forgot who he was or where he had come from — a poor, tiny, isolated village surrounded and dwarfed by the Dolomite Mountains. That remembrance was evident in his every word and his every action. He was a servant of servants, the embodiment of the Good News of the gospel. And because of that he imbued the world with wonder and love.
That summer of Venerable Pope John Paul I’s pontificate had all too short a date. Yet forty years following his election on August 26, 1978, his memory and his example live on, inspiring us to live according to what Lincoln once designated “the better angels of our nature.” It is a fitting date to remember and celebrate.
Mo Guernon of Rhode Island, a freelance writer and consultant at Quest Writing Solutions, is completing a biography of John Paul I. He is a founding member of the Pope John Paul Society based in New York City.