John Paul I, Pope

views updated


Pontificate Aug. 26Sept. 28, 1978; b. Albino Luciani, Oct. 17, 1912, Forno di Canale, Italy. He was born into a poor family. His father, a Socialist Party organizer, was at one point forced to migrate to Switzerland for work. After studies in the minor seminary at Feltre and the major seminary at Belluno, young Luciani was ordained a priest on July 7, 1935. Fr. Luciani earned a doctorate in theology at the Gregorianum in Rome in 1937, and served briefly as a parish priest at Forno di Canale and Agerdo. From 1937 to 1947 he was professor of theology, canon law, and history of sacred art at the Belluno seminary, for a time serving also as vice-rector. Popular as a preacher and a catechist, his book Catechism Crumbs went through several editions. While continuing to teach, he also became in 1947 pro-chancellor of the diocese, then named vicar-general. In 1958 he was named to the see of Vittorio-Veneto and ordained bishop by John XXIII at St. Peter's. He participated in vatican council ii, and his commitment to its spirit of renewal was expressed in a pastoral letter to his diocese in 1967, "Notes on the Council."

Bishop Luciani, named Patriarch of Venice in 1969, was created cardinal by Pope Paul VI at the consistory of March 5, 1973, with San Marco, Piazza Venezia, as his titular church. In 1976 he published Illustrissimi, an imaginative book of letters he addressed to famous literary and historical figures, including Jesus. In the conclave that met in August 1978 to elect a successor to Paul VI, Cardinal Luciani was elected the first day, on the fourth ballot. His election was surprising because of its swiftness and was welcomed because of his warmth and simplicity. He did away with the traditional papal coronation and was installed as the supreme pastor by receiving the archiepiscopal pallium on Sept. 3, 1978; the pope referred to the ceremony as the inauguration of his pastoral ministry. The program Pope John Paul outlined the day after his election proposed the following: to continue to put into effect the heritage of Vatican II; to preserve the integrity of church discipline in the lives of priests and faithful; to remind the entire Church that the first duty is evangelization; to continue the ecumenical thrust, without compromising doctrine but without hesitancy; to pursue with patience but firmness the serene and constructive dialogue of Paul VI for pastoral action; to support every laudable and worthy initiative for world peace.

The pope did not live to carry out this program; the Church and the world were shocked by his sudden death after barely a month in office. But John Paul I had long suffered from poor health, although illness was kept secret and not revealed until after his death. His physical condition and the pressures of the office, not a fanciful assassination plot, joined to bring his pontificate to an abrupt end. The "September Papacy" had brought fulfilment to the longing in people's hearts for a person and a leader who radiated joy, holiness, and simple goodness. His passing left the hope that the response to his brief pontificate would be remembered by his successors and by every pastor in the Church.

Bibliography: j. cornwell, A Thief in the Night: The Mysterious Death of Pope John Paul I (New York 1989). p. hebblethwaite, The Year of Three Popes (Cleveland 1979).

[t. c. o'brien]