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.”