Monday, November 19, 2012

Debunking four myths about John Paul I, the 'Smiling Pope'

John L. Allen Jr. | Nov. 2, 2012

Oct. 17 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Albino Luciani, the man who would become John Paul I, the "Smiling Pope" of just 33 days, from Aug. 26 to Sept. 28, 1978. On the day of the anniversary, an official positio, or "position paper," was filed in the Vatican to support his sainthood cause.

In Italy, the centenary was marked by an hourlong interview on Sat2000, the network of the Italian bishops, with Fr. Diego Lorenzi, who served as Luciani's priest secretary when he was the Patriarch of Venice and also in the Vatican. Around the world, various events have been organized, including a mid-October conference in New York titled "The True Pope John Paul I: A Man of Faith for Our Time."

John Paul I's 33-day papacy was the 10th shortest of all time, and the briefest since Leo XI's in the early 17th century. Yet the ferment shows he only needed a month to leave a deep mark on the Catholic imagination.

In part, that's because he seemed exactly what most Catholics pray their leaders will be: warm, compassionate, genuinely happy to be with ordinary people, a man of obvious faith who didn't wear his piety on his sleeve or take himself too seriously. He pioneered the simplification of the papacy by dropping the royal "we," declining coronation with the papal tiara and discontinuing use of the sedia gestatoria, or portable throne.

In part, too, fascination with John Paul I endures because he's the great counter-factual of recent Catholic history: "What might have been had he lived?" His papacy is for Catholics what the Kennedy administration has always been for Americans, a sort of Rorschach test allowing people to project their own hopes and dreams.

One value of the events marking the centenary, therefore, is that they can help recover the "real" John Paul I, as opposed to misconceptions and hypothetical reconstructions that have flowered over the last 35 years.

In particular, the remembrances we've heard during the last month seem to debunk four persistent myths:
The "smiling pope" was good-hearted but weak, out of his depth in the Machiavellian environment of the Vatican.
John Paul I was a closet radical who would have taken the church in a dramatically different direction than the two popes who followed him.
John Paul I did not die of natural causes, but rather fell victim to a complex assassination plot.
Although a breath of fresh air after the dour final years of Pope Paul VI, John Paul I's reign was too short to have anything substantive to offer the church of the 21st century, especially with regard to its top internal priority, new evangelization.

No weakling

In his interview, Lorenzi dismissed perceptions that John Paul I was a wide-eyed naïf, a country pastor crushed by the magnitude of the papacy and the Byzantine intricacies of the Vatican.

Instead, Lorenzi said the day after his election, Luciani studied the Annuario, the Vatican's yearbook, to familiarize himself with the organizational chart, then set about taking things in hand. He met regularly with the Secretary of State, Lorenzi said, and also had meetings with all the cardinals who headed Vatican departments.

"He was not overwhelmed," Lorenzi insisted, saying John Paul I took up his new role with the same "perspicacity and intelligence" he displayed over a decade as the patriarch of Venice.

At the New York conference, writer Mo Guernon argued that Luciani's humility had nothing to do with fecklessness, and that he could summon some steel when the situation called for it.

For instance, Guernon told a story of when Luciani was a bishop and one of his parishes chose a new pastor without consulting him. He responded by boldly entering the church and removing the Eucharist, refusing to return it until the situation was resolved.

In a similar vein, when some priests in Venice openly backed the liberalization of divorce in defiance of church teaching, Luciani disbanded the group and suspended the priests. As Guernon put it, that was "rather tough stuff from such a meek man."

(As a footnote, this episode lends context to a famous moment in 1972 when Paul VI visited Venice and put his stole around Luciani's shoulders. Many observers thought Paul was indicating his successor, but in context, the pope was probably showing support for the embattled patriarch.)

Lorenzi also shot down the notion that Luciani's election was a bolt from the blue, a sort of rabbit-out-of-the-hat solution to a deadlock.

For one thing, he said, Luciani knew going into the conclave of August 1978 that there was considerable talk about him. Indeed, Lorenzi said Luciani told him personally that if elected, he would decline, and that he had said the same thing to then-Fr. Prospero Grech, who's now a cardinal, noting that Paul VI's constitution allowed whoever's elected the right to refuse. In the end, however, Lorenzi said Luciani felt compelled to offer the same "yes" as when he had been named patriarch of Venice.

Lorenzi said Luciani was familiar to the other cardinals from his contributions to the 1974 Synod of Bishops on evangelization in the modern world.

"They knew him well," Lorenzi said, saying his work at the synod had been "respected and appreciated."

(That's also a reminder of the importance of synods of bishops. Since Paul VI created the synod in 1967, all three subsequent popes first made a name for themselves during one of its sessions.)

One hallmark of a John Paul I papacy may have been a desire for greater financial transparency, and Guernon suggested he had the spine to back it up.

He told the story of a scandal in which two of Luciani's priests were caught embezzling church funds. Luciani suspended the priests and wrote an open letter to the diocese explaining the situation, frankly acknowledging that "two of my priests have done wrong." While voicing compassion, he let a criminal investigation and prosecution run its course. He also sold off property owned by the diocese and also requested additional help from parishioners in order to balance the books.

No radical

Overall, the image of John Paul I that emerges is of a pastorally minded figure who tried to hold a divided church together. At the New York event, his niece, Pia Luciani, recounted a time shortly after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) when he was still the bishop of Vittorio Veneto, when he said to her the diocese actually contained people "of three councils":
Those stuck at Vatican I, if not actually at the Council of Trent.
Those "who gladly accept the aggiornamento of Vatican II, seeing it as a grace to improve the relationship between the church and the world."
"A little group who make the council say things that in reality it does not say, planning a radical rush toward another council that still does not exist, a Vatican III."

Her uncle, she implied, was in that second camp, but didn't want to just write off either the first or the third.

Lorenzi said during his Sat2000 interview that Benedict XVI actually reminds him of Luciani, both in terms of "physical stature," he said, and in terms of their core concern with the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. Just as those were the subjects of Benedict's first encyclicals, Lorenzi said, they were also the topic of John Paul I's first homily as pope.

The primary newsflash from the interview was another bit of continuity between John Paul I and the popes who followed him: a desire to heal the schism with the church's traditionalist wing.

Lorenzi said John Paul I was keenly concerned about the breach with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who in 1976 had defied Pope Paul VI by ordaining priests despite having been asked not to do so. Lorenzi said John Paul I hoped to address the problem "as soon as possible" because the "unity of the church" concerned him "more than many other things which the press seemed interested in."

Cementing the impression of sympathy between John Paul I and Benedict XVI, freelance writer Lori Pieper, a Secular Franciscan who organized the New York conference, quoted from a homily given by Luciani in 1977, after Paul VI announced that then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger would become the archbishop of Munich and a cardinal:

A few days ago, I offered my congratulations to Cardinal Ratzinger, the new Archbishop of Munich. In a Catholic Germany that he himself deplores as suffering, in part, from an anti-Roman and anti-papal complex, he has had the courage to proclaim loudly that 'the Lord should be sought where Peter is.' ... Ratzinger appears to me to be the right kind of prophet. Not all those who write and speak today have the same courage. In order to want to go where others are going, for fear of not seeming modern, some of them accept only with cuts and restrictions the creed pronounced by Paul VI in 1968 at the closing of the Year of Faith; they criticize the papal documents; they talk constantly about ecclesial communion, but never about the pope as a necessary reference point for those who want to be in true communion with the church.

Other examples surfaced at the New York event.

British researcher Paul Spackman reported that when a bitter national debate erupted in Italy in the 1970s over divorce, Luciani's views lined up solidly with orthodox teaching. The difference, he said, is Luciani had a keener sense than some others of how to expound that teaching in the context of the times.

In 1974, Spackman said, Luciani was opposed to efforts by right-wing Christian Democrats to stage a national referendum seeking to overturn the liberalization of divorce, fearing it would divide the church and underscore its declining influence. (In the end, the referendum was soundly defeated.)

Overall, Spackman describes John Paul I as a man of "doctrinal rigor leavened by pastoral and social open-mindednes," and said he left behind a "legacy of gentle and compassionate bridge-building."

Pieper unpacked two famous sound bites from John Paul I that have fueled a good deal of speculation:
A comment before the conclave of August 1978 congratulating the parents of the world's first test-tube baby, which has led some to believe he would have overturned the church's ban on in-vitro fertilization
A comment during his Sept. 10, 1978, Angelus address that God is "more mother than father," prompting some to wonder if he shared the objection of many feminists to the church's "patriarchal" bias and might have reversed the ban on female priests

On IVF, Pieper wrote Luciani upheld the teaching of Pope Pius XII against mechanical intervention in the marital act. Further, she said, people always quote his congratulations to the parents of Louise Brown in that pre-conclave interview, but not the lines that followed it:

Even if the possibility of having children in vitro does not bring about disaster, it at least poses some enormous risks. For example: If the natural ability to conceive sometimes produces malformed children, won't the ability to conceive artificially produce even more? If so, won't the scientist faced with new problems be acting like the "sorcerer's apprentice," who unleashes powerful forces without being able to contain and dominate them? Another example: Given the hunger for money and the lack of moral scruples today, won't there be the danger that a new industry will arise, that of "baby‑manufacturing," perhaps for those who cannot or will not contract a valid marriage? If this were to happen, wouldn't it be a great setback instead of progress for the family and for society?

Needless to say, that doesn't exactly sound like an IVF enthusiast. 

On the celebrated "more mother than father" quote, Pieper argued that John Paul I meant to underline God's tenderness, not to dislodge traditional imagery about God as a father or to suggest that God is more female than male in an absolute sense. It's a trope, she notes, that was developed by John Paul II, including his 1980 encyclical Dives in Misericordia.

On women priests, Spackman quoted a 1975 talk Luciani gave to a group of sisters expressing support for the all-male priesthood:

You will ask: what about ... the priesthood itself? I can say to you: Christ bestowed the pastoral ministry on men alone, on his apostles. Did he mean this to be valid only for a short time, almost as though he made allowances for the prejudice about the inferiority of women prevalent in his time? Or did he intend it to be valid always? Let it be very clear: Christ never accepted the prejudice about the inferiority of women: they are always admirable figures in the Gospels, more so than the apostles themselves. The priesthood, however, is a service given by means of spiritual powers and not a form of superiority. Through the will of Christ, women -- in my judgment -- carry out a different, complementary, and precious service in the church, but they are not "possible priests" ... That does not do wrong to women.

Spackman hinted, however, that John Paul I might have taken a different tack on another perennially controversial question: birth control.

Spackman said Luciani privately favored a more moderate position, quoting a 1968 memo after Paul VI reiterated the traditional ban in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which Luciani wrote: "I must confess that I hoped in my heart, even though I didn't let it out in writing, that the very serious difficulties could be overcome and that the reply of the Teacher ... might coincide with the hopes raised in so many couples."

In February 1974, Luciani was even blunter: "If I were the 'divine master of the law,' " Spackman quotes him as saying, "I would abolish the law."

Spackman concludes: "This statement may have had incalculable implications had his papacy not been cut short."

No conspiracy

As he has done on many other occasions, in his comments on Italian TV, Lorenzi rejected conspiracy theories suggesting John Paul I was the victim of foul play. Instead, he said he believes the pope died of a heart attack, a conviction based partly on the fact that, according to Lorenzi, he had complained of chest pains at dinner the night before.

They didn't summon the doctor, Lorenzi said, because at the time, the pope said the pains were passing.

Lorenzi added that the initial Vatican statement announcing the death of the pope probably could have short-circuited much of the speculation by including those details, but said everyone involved felt under tremendous pressure to get it finished.

Pia Luciani said in New York that "the whole family, beginning with my father, his brother Edoardo, has never attributed the sudden death of my uncle to anything but natural causes."

"All the castles of the most disparate theories that have been heard or read in books and newspapers fall," she said.

She added that perhaps the Vatican's effort to fudge the circumstances of the death -- not wanting to admit that John Paul I was discovered by a nun who worked in the papal apartment, and trying to suggest he was holding The Imitation of Christ rather than papers from the office -- "gave rise to other problems and suspicions."

Luciani said her uncle may have suffered a thrombosis, meaning a clot that obstructs the flow of blood, since he had already experiences one such episode during a 1975 trip to Brazil that affected the retina in one eye.

Interestingly, she rejected the idea floated by Lorenzi of a heart attack, insisting that had her uncle really complained of chest pains, the nuns in his household who accompanied him to the Vatican from Venice would have called a doctor whether he wanted it or not. The actual cause of death will likely never be ascertained with certainty because no autopsy was performed, in keeping with Vatican protocol.

Bishop Enrico Dal Covolo, rector of the Lateran University in Rome and the postulator for John Paul I's sainthood cause, recently said medical records collected as part of the process also support the conclusion that the pope died of natural causes.

The new evangelization

Although John Paul I apparently didn't use the phrase new evangelization, Pieper argued that he not only "anticipated" the idea, but "preached it and lived it." If the aim is primarily to reach out to lapsed Catholics in the West, Luciani was certainly early to the party; Pieper quoted from a 1968 essay in which he argued that Italy was, by then, every bit as much "mission territory" as Africa.

In a speech to the College of Cardinals the morning after his election, John Paul I said it clearly: "We want to recall to the entire church that her first duty is still evangelization."

The important point, however, is not that John Paul I wanted to relight the church's missionary fires, because plenty of people share that desire, but rather the model he offered of how to go about it.

His approach was neither the swashbuckling bravado of John Paul II, nor the professorial precision of Benedict XVI. Instead, John Paul I had a breezy, mild, informal style, one arguably well-suited to the inductive and personalistic temperament of the post-modern era.

Among the iconic images of his short papacy are when John Paul I called children onto the stage at the end of his audiences, making some fairly profound points in simple language.The most famous expression of this dialectical approach is the celebrated book Illustrissimi, in which Luciani carried on an imaginary correspondence with various saints, historical figures (such as the Empress Maria Teresa of Austria), authors (such as Mark Twain and G.K. Chesterton) and even fictional characters (such as Pinocchio). The letters were originally written for a monthly periodical when Luciani was in Venice, and proved so popular they were collected into a book.

Aside from the tremendous wit the letters reveal, they represent a philosophy of catechesis in action: meeting people where they are, acknowledging the wisdom they already possess and then gently leading them to consider the Gospel.

Pieper quoted an English priest who recently told her of John Paul I, "If there was ever a prophet of the new evangelization, it's him."

One final footnote: John Paul I is usually remembered as an extremely "pastoral" figure, someone close to ordinary people who understood their struggles and their dreams, and who knew how to make church teaching accessible and relevant.

(Here's an example. Several years ago, Lorenzi told me he was standing with the crowd in St. Peter's Square on Aug. 27, 1978, when the new pope delivered his first Angelus address. At the end, Lorenzi said, he overheard a little girl who had been sitting on her father's shoulders exclaim: "Papa, I understood everything!" Lorenzi said he gazed at the pope and smiled, offering a thumbs-up.

"That was his gift, to put complex things in a way that a little girl could understand," he said.)

Strikingly, however, Pia Luciani reminded the New York conference that despite his pastoral reputation, her uncle never actually served as a parish priest. During his career, he was a seminary professor, rector and vicar general, then a bishop, patriarch and pope.

John Paul I thus illustrates a key Catholic insight: being "pastoral" is far more about outlook and personality, not so much one's résumé. Somebody can be pastoral from behind a desk, just as they can be clericalist in a cornfield.

[John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His email address is]

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Forgotten Pope

Why Albino Luciani's holiness should be celebrated


On the Second Sunday of Easter, Pope Benedict XVI declared John Paul II “blessed,” a milestone in the late pope’s journey to sainthood. The speed at which Karol Wojtyla’s cause for canonization has progressed is singular. Under the church’s rules, the process cannot begin until a candidate has been deceased at least five years, but Pope Benedict dispensed with that requirement in this instance.

Not so with John Paul’s namesake and immediate predecessor, Albino Luciani, whose own cause, initiated nearly eight years ago, still sluggishly wends its way through the labyrinthine Vatican bureaucracy, its ultimate resolution still in doubt.

For those whose faith was rekindled by that gentle pope, the lingering uncertainty about his canonization is disheartening. Albino Luciani’s life was so exemplary that it could inspire a world grown weary and cynical and yearning for the “greater gifts” and a “more excellent way.”

“He passed as a meteor which unexpectedly lights up the heavens and then disappears, leaving us amazed and astonished,” Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri aptly observed at the pope’s funeral Mass in 1978.


It is consoling to remember this holy man. Hundreds of millions, however, have no such consolation, for Luciani’s fleeting 33-day papacy has been eclipsed by that of John Paul II, whose illustrious 27-year tenure was of impressive duration and historical consequence. But papal longevity itself is no criterion for sainthood, and it is wrong to conclude that Luciani left no legacy of import to succeeding generations.

In just a month Pope John Paul I captured the hearts of people worldwide, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who witnessed in him the welcome but unexpected triumph of humility. Many of us intuitively recognized in the flash of his benign grin, the gentleness of his manner and the compassion at the core of his public talks a beacon of hope. That Luciani transfixed the world during his abbreviated pontificate is no exaggeration: he was a radiant man who taught us how to live and love.

Luciani picked “Humilitas” as his episcopal motto, an appropriate choice for a prince of the church who regarded himself as “poor dust.” “We must feel small before God,” he preached; and he lived that conviction faithfully, often describing himself publicly as “a poor man accustomed to small things and silence.”

How Can I Serve You?

There was a nobility in Luciani’s simplicity, and evidence of his humility abounds. As bishop of Vittorio Veneto, for example, he visited his parishes by bicycle, a rather unassuming means of transport for a man of his station. Later, when taking official possession of St. Mark’s Basilica, he dispensed with the fanfare traditionally accorded the new patriarch of the ancient archdiocese of Venice. At his official residence he literally opened his door to all who knocked: priests, penitents, prostitutes, drug addicts, drunks, the destitute—everyone.

Luciani eschewed the accouterments of high ecclesiastical office, preferring a tattered black cassock to the regal purple and red hues signifying the ranks of bishop and cardinal to which he had reluctantly been raised. Strolling through the streets of Venice, Luciani would furtively stuff his zucchetto in his pocket, content to be mistaken for a parish priest by the pedestrians he encountered. After one such solitary twilight walk, the patriarch returned home sporting a bruised and swollen cheek. When the sisters asked him what had happened, he replied dispassionately, “Oh, nothing…. I met a drunkard…. He hit me in the face.”

Even Luciani’s speech patterns reflected the austerity that characterized his life. Like any great teacher, he had a gift for conveying profound insights in unadorned, easily understandable prose. Though blessed with a probing intellect, prodigious memory and vast learning, he sprinkled his discourse with humble anecdotes from life and literature, clearly illustrating great truths that even the young and untutored could readily grasp.

As pope, Luciani quickly discarded the royal “we” and disdained the sedia gestatoria, or portable throne in which popes, hoisted onto the shoulders of their subjects, were carried in majestic procession like conquering monarchs. At his papal installation he also abandoned the traditional crowning with the ostentatious, jewel-encrusted, triple tiara, insisting instead on receiving a simple shepherd’s pallium as symbol of his new role as bishop of Rome. This pope’s unexpected greeting to those who met with him at the Vatican was, “How can I serve you?”

And there were private instances—only recently disclosed—in which John Paul I revealed his abiding humility in ways the public could not have imagined.

A Niece Remembers

This past summer I made a monthlong pilgrimage to Italy and retraced Luciani’s life journey from Canale D’Agordo, his birthplace in the Dolomites, to St. Peter’s Basilica, where the pope’s earthly remains rest in a crypt not far from the bones of St. Peter.

I also examined documents written in his own hand and spoke extensively with several people who knew and loved him, including nieces, prelates and secretaries from his days as bishop, patriarch and pope.

One of them was the pope’s favorite niece, Pia Luciani Basso, daughter of Luciani’s younger brother Edoardo. Their relationship, she confided to me, was so close that he was like “a second father” to her.

She explained how her uncle’s soothing presence and gentle encouragement eased her mind when she left home to attend a distant school. Despite a pressing schedule as bishop, Luciani volunteered to accompany her when her father fell ill. “He always put aside his own problems to help others in need,” she recalled.

Her father was fond of telling about an incident that illuminates the pope’s extraordinary selflessness even as a youngster. The Luciani family was poor, and hunger was an almost constant companion. Even so, one day Albino came home with some white bread, a precious commodity. Instead of eating it himself or giving away a part of it, he gave Edoardo the entire piece and watched with satisfaction as the younger boy devoured it.

“His humility was a choice, because he was always conscious of his intelligence, but he was conscious too that this was a gift from God,” the niece explained.

Mrs. Basso noted that Luciani thought of himself as an ordinary priest. “His dream was to have a parish in the lake region and bring with him his mother and his father, because he said his mother would be happy to be in a house on the lake.” He never realized his dream.

Instead, Luciani would reluctantly accept what ambitious clerics yearned for: promotion to the highest ranks in the church hierarchy. “I must accept the will of Providence,” he would say resignedly, according to Mrs. Basso.

Just before entering the conclave that elected him, Luciani wrote to her expressing relief that he was “out of danger.”

“I think he was afraid of that. He was hoping that it wouldn’t happen,” she conjectured.

Santo Subito!

“Lived holiness is very much more widespread than officially proclaimed holiness.... Coming into Paradise, we will probably find mothers, workers, professional people, students set higher than the official saints we venerate on earth,” Luciani once wrote. That is undoubtedly so, and though he would surely deem himself undeserving to be counted among them, his life is a testament to his worthiness.

In his book Making Saints, Kenneth L. Woodward defines a saint as an individual who is recognized as especially holy. By that standard alone, Albino Luciani should have been canonized decades ago. The church’s official recognition of a saint confers special status on an individual in the eyes of the faithful, for it is the saints whose lives we celebrate and whose virtues individuals of conscience strive to emulate. It is they whose memory endures in perpetuity.

The Pope Luciani Foundation, based in Canale d’Agordo, Italy, his birthplace, is devoted to the laudable goal of memorializing him. Its director Loris Serafini, author of the delightful biography Albino Luciani, The Smiling Pope, informed me recently that dedication of a museum and library in the pope’s honor will coincide with the centenary celebration of his birth on Oct. 17, 2012.

That is a heartening development, but to those whose souls Luciani touched, it is not enough; his cause for sainthood should proceed apace.

Today, a broken world desperately needs moral enlightenment. The life and teachings of the first Pope John Paul can provide that in abundance. Thus it would be an incalculable loss to those in current generations—as well as future ones who never knew him—for his memory to fade into oblivion.

A streaking meteor, spectacular as it is for the glorious moment we behold it, leaves not a trace of its luminous presence once it hurtles beyond our vision. Pope Benedict has the power to prevent the fading of Albino Luciani’s light by canonizing this extraordinary pope.

Mo Guernon, a former newspaper reporter and Rhode Island columnist, is writing a biography of Pope John Paul I.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

John Paul I’s postulator says late pope was definitely not killed


Pope John Paul I

On Wednesday Mgr. Dal Covolo will deliver the position paper for the late Pope’s beatification, just 33 days ahead of his election


“Some interesting new facts have come to light regarding Pope Luciani’s state of health, thanks to the testimonies (167 people have been heard) and medical documents collected. These sources definitively confirm that he was not killed.” This is according to Mgr. Enrico Dal Covolo, Rector of the Pontifical Lateran University and Postulator of John Paul I’s sainthood cause, who spoke to Italian news channel Tgcom24 in an interview on Pope Luciani who passed away after just 33 on the papal throne. In two days, on 17 October, it will be his 100th birthday.

On Wednesday Mgr. Dal Covolo will deliver the first part of the Positio - the documentation on John Paul I’s heroic virtues, on his life and on the miracle he is believed to have performed – to the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Cardinal Angelo Amato.

“We will deliver the Positio on 17 October - the postulator said – and the process for determining the Pope’s miracle will continue. I am certain that the Pope will soon be proclaimed a saint, though we still do not know exactly when. The cause is hanging by a very thin thread and we need to be careful!”

“I met with Pope Benedict XVI about a week ago – Mgr. Dal Covolo added – and he confirmed he was very glad about this step forward in the late Pope’s beatification process, advising me to be cautious. He strongly supports this cause, with great affection and interest. He gave a special blessing.” 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Second Vatican Council according to Albino Luciani


Albino Luciani

Continuity or a break with the past, the meaning of religious freedom. This is how the man who was to become John Paul I interpreted the Council


 The celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the ecumenical Second Vatican Council, scheduled for next October, will take place at a time when the interpretation of the Conciliar decrees will be a very poignant and current theme in the life of the Church, after the now famous speech by pope Benedict XVI (December 2005) on the correct interpretation and the lingering dissent on both the progressive and traditionalist sides.

 On the 11th of October 1962, among others, a young cleric who had been appointed bishop of Vittorio Veneto by John XXIII himself four years before attended the opening ceremony. This young man was Albino Luciani who would later become the first pope to have experienced the Council as a bishop and then to put its decrees in action in his dioceses. It’s interesting to look at what the then-bishop of Vittorio Veneto had hoped and wished for, as he himself wrote in the text he sent to Rome during the Council preparations (Marco Roncalli analysed the subject in his recent thorough biography on Luciani, published by San Paolo). Luciani in his letter hoped that the future Council would highlight the “Christian optimism” inherent in the teachings of Christ, against the “widespread pessimism” of relativistic culture. He denounced a fundamental ignorance of the “basic elements of the Faith”.

 The future pope had not expressed much interest for the “technical” issues linked to new collective episcopates’ consultation methods and did not mention issues linked to ecumenism, Gospel and Ecclesiology. He focussed on the need to go back to basics and announce “ the fundamental elements of the Faith”, noticing even back then the advancing crisis in the communication of its contents, a sign of secularization.
In terms of the global interpretation of the Council, Mgr. Luciani took a path that fully corresponds to the reform within continuity hermeneutics proposed by Benedict XVI as the best way to interpret the Vatican II. The then-bishop of Vittorio Veneto wrote: “The physiognomy and structure of the Catholic Church have been determined once and for all by the Lord and cannot be touched. If anything, superstructures can. Things that have not been determined by Christ, but were introduced by popes or councils or the faithful, can be changed, or eliminated today or tomorrow. Yesterday they might have introduced a certain number of dioceses, a certain way to lead missions, to educate priests, they might have chosen to follow certain cultural trends. Well, this can be changed and one can say “ the Church that comes out of the Council is still the same as it was yesterday, but renewed”. No one can ever say “ We have a new Church, different from what it was”. 

It is also interesting to look at the way Luciani experienced the long process that lead to the Council’s declaration on religious freedom «Dignitatis humanae». “Religious freedom, interpreted in the right way“ wrote Luciani  “ so we would not misunderstand. We all agree that there is only one true religion and those who are aware of this truth must practice this religion and no other. That said, there are also other things that are right and we must say them. In other words, those who are not satisfied with Catholicism have the right to profess their own religion for various reasons. Natural Law states that each one of us has the right to search for truth, especially religious truth. One cannot find it by staying shut in a room, reading some books. We truly search for it by talking with other people, by sharing opinions…. The right to the truth is just a common saying, but there are only physical or moral people who do not have the right to search for truth. Therefore do not be scared of slapping truth in the face when you give someone the right to use their freedom”.

“The choice of religious belief must be free.” explained the bishop of Vittorio Veneto “ The freer and more earnest the choice, the more those that embrace the Faith will feel honoured. These are rights, natural rights. Rights always come hand in hand with duties. The non Catholics have the right to profess their religion and I have the duty to respect their right as a private citizen, as a priest, as a bishop and as a State”.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Luciani, the humble pope


John Paul I

A biography of John Paul I by Marco Roncalli, which describes some of the positions taken by the Pope on de facto unions and the building of mosques


Muslims "have the right to build a mosque" and “If you don't want your children to become Muslim you need to teach them the catechism better." These were the words of Albino Luciani  as he explained the decree on religious freedom at the end of the Council. A few months before being nominated Patriarch of Venice, the future pope opened up the possibility of a validation of common law marriages in order, he believed, to avoid the introduction of divorce in Italy.

These are just some of the stories in 'John Paul I', the biography of Pope Luciani written by Marco Roncalli (St.Paul, number of pages 734, 34 Euro).Thanks to new testimonies and documents that have never been published before, the author manages to contest the established stereotype of Luciani as a conservative pope.

The words Luciani pronounced in November 1964 to explain the Conciliar declaration, Dignitatis Humanae, seem to still be relevant today: "Non-Catholics have the right to profess their religion and I must respect their right : I must do so as  a private individual, as a priest, as a bishop, as a State." "Some bishops got scared," Luciani said "...there are four thousand Muslims in Rome, they have the right to build a mosque for themselves. There is nothing to say, we must let them do it. If you don't want your children to become Buddhists or Muslims you must teach them the catechism better, make sure they are really convinced of their Catholic faith."

In Thoughts to the family, a collection put together in 1969, the then Bishop of the Italian city of Vittorio Veneto carefully opened up to "common law marriages" as a "lesser evil" that might prevent the introduction of divorce. Luciani explained that such unions should not be equalled to marriage, but added: "there are, indisputably, pathological family situations, painful cases. Some suggest divorce as a remedy, but it would actually exacerbate the problems. Can't we look at another remedy aside from divorce? Once the legitimate institution of the family is protected and kept safe couldn't we after careful consideration recognize some civil status to common law unions?"

 This same sensitivity, in the months leading up to Paul VI's Encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae’, whose teachings Luciani would promptly embrace,  led the bishop to be "moderately liberal" in regards to the birth-control pill, so long as it was to be used "for the right" purpose, in other words "to give birth to the number of children one could comfortably bring up and educate."

To the objection that the pill went against natural laws he replied: "Nature wants us to be heavier than air, however we do well to travel by plane." This example, explained Fr. Taffarel, who had been Luciani's secretary in Vittorio Veneto, means this: the plane overcomes gravity to fly and therefore violates natural laws, but no one accuses the pilots of sin. So he wondered, can one win over nature without sinning?

The book, after the papal election on the 26th of August 1978, states that John Paul I tried to go get out of his predicament. “I don’t know how I could accept. The following day I already regretted it, but it was too late” reads a letter written by the Pope, the content of which has been revealed by the former president of Azione Cattolica (Catholic Action) Mario Agnes. Finally, it is worth mentioning the testimony of the Xaverian missionary Gabriele Ferrari who meeting patriarch Luciani on the 2nd of May 1978 was told “I have not been feeling well for some time”. “When he said this, he touched his chest with the hand and added: “For a long time I have had a great pain here.”

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Glocester man to speak at international conference on life of Pope John Paul I

August 14, 2012 6:42 pm

GLOCESTER, R.I. -- A former member of the Foster-Glocester School Committee is being tapped to address an international conference on the life of Albino Luciani, who was Pope John Paul I for just 33 days before he died unexpectedly in 1978.

Mo Guernon, who regularly wrote columns for the Woonsocket Call, Warwick Beacon, and other papers, thinks he was asked to speak at the Oct. 12-13 gathering at New York City's Immaculate Conception center ibecause of an article he wrote on the "Forgotten Pope" for America magazine and interviews he's had with the late pope's family while preparing a biography.

Entitled "The Real Pope John Paul I," the conference will mark the 100th anniversary of Luciani's birth, featuring experts from Europe and the U.S.

The heritage of Albino Luciani on the centenary of his birth

He was elected Pope on 26 August 1978

For the Catholic Church the summer of 1978 was not just an ordinary summer. Indeed Paul VI died on 6 August, after a 15-year Pontificate. On 26 August, following a very rapid Conclave – four ballots in two days – the Patriarch of Venice was elected Pope. He took the name of John Paul I: “the smiling Pope”, “the humble Pope”, “The catechist Pope”, “the pastor of the world”, “God’s smile”. The pontificate of Albino Luciani lasted for only just 33 days. On 17 October 1978 he would have been 66, but he did not live to celebrate that birthday. At dawn on 28 September the new Pontiff was found dead in his bedroom.

We are eager to remember him on the occasion of his election to the papal throne. The following day, at the altar beneath Michelangelo’s Last Judgementin the Sistine Chapel, “this humble and most recent servant of the servants of God” gave his first and only Radio Message, broadcast in “mondovision”: the Urbi et Orbi Discourse. He was still overwhelmed “at the thought of this tremendous ministry”, as a priest, teacher and pastor, but certain of the “comforting, dominant presence of the Son of God” in the Church, “Placing our hand in that of Christ” and “leaning on him... the author of salvation and the principle of unity and peace”. In this friendly way he addressed all men and women, seeing them as friends, as brothers and sisters, a world that “thirsts for a life of love”.

He developed his Discourse in six points, each one introduced by the words “we wish”, full of effect and unusual in the language of a Pope. A programme of original ideas flashes before our eyes: faith and culture find a felicitous synthesis.

It is an input tinged with solemnity, yet at the same time affection, and which seems to have been born from the delicate pulsation of his heart. Shortly afterwards, from the central loggia of St Peter’s and facing the spectacular square designed by Bernini, in a voice filled with emotion and awe and with a small boy’s smile, he commented on his election in a manner different from any other Pope. Making short shrift of the majestic “we”, he cancelled distances and, adjusting an escaping curl on his forehead, buried the practice of wearing the tiara on the head. His style of “being” Pope, humble, simple, creative and direct, instantly fired the enthusiasm of the crowd that filled the oval square and even elicited outbursts of affection in the Vatican buildings.

August 26, 2012

Those words Pope Luciani pronounced about Lefebvre

From Vatican Insider



Reconciliation with traditionalist archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was also close to Pope Luciani’s heart. This was revealed to the director of the Italian Episcopal Conference’s television channel TV2000, Dino Boffo, by John Paul I’s secretary, Diego Lorenzi, during an interview on the occasion of the centenary of the “smiling Pope’s” birth. The interview will be aired tomorrow at 18:30 on TV2000. “The problem Lefebvre had – Lorenzi stated – which still exists today, was also on John Paul I’s mind.” Referring to the Lefebvre affair, the Pope’s secretary explained how John Paul I used to say to him: “The uncut tunic of the Roman Catholic Church has a tear in it.” “And he longed for it to be mended as soon as possible,” Lorenzi concluded. “The compactness of the flock, the unity of the Church is something he held very close to his heart, more than many other things which the press seemed interested in.”

Pope Luciani’s recent biography (San Paolo editions) written by Marco Roncalli, a number of excerpts of which were published in this afternoon’s issue of the Holy See’s daily broadsheet L’Osservatore Romano reconstructs the future Pope’s thinking and concerns about the Lefebvrians. These concerns arose before the election and were a response to a situation which he already saw as an emergency during the Venice period. Starting for example with the homily pronounced on 16 August 1976, when Patriarch Luciani began talking about the ancient discord within the Church and ended up discussing the modern disagreements which saw Paul VI hit by the Lefebvre and Franzoni cases. Just a few days before, on 22 July, Paul VI has in fact suspended the traditionalist bishop a divinis.

In his homily, Pope Luciani linked the two cases saying: “My brothers, I was a fraternal friend of Franzoni’s and we were on familiar terms; I have heard Lefebvre speak in the Council on many occasions. I am certain that years ago both of them fully accepted the Council’s following words: “by virtue of office and as vicar of Christ, has full, supreme and universal authority, which can be exercised always and everywhere.” How come both Franzoni and Lefebvre now expressly reject these words? To me this is an unexplainable tragedy… Or perhaps “the explanation lies in the conclusion itself, which Paul Bourget gave in his novel Le demon du midi: “We must live according to what we think, otherwise we end up thinking according to how we live”… We may also face this risk…The Lord, however, wants us to obey the hierarchy.” These words are as true today as they were yesterday.