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A conversation about the late pope, an ‘incarnation of humility.’
BY Edward Pentin
August marked the 30th anniversary since the death of Pope John Paul I, the
so-called “smiling Pope,” whose pontificate lasted only 33 days.
But despite its brevity, the
pontificate of Albino Luciani continues to be fondly remembered. The Italian
journalist Andrea Tornielli, who wrote a book in 2003 on Pope John Paul I,
entitled Papa Luciani — The Smile of a Saint, spoke
in Rome with Rome correspondent Edward Pentin about John Paul I’s life and
How should we best remember Pope
John Paul I?
Pope John Paul II said that the
importance of his predecessor’s pontificate, John Paul I, was inversely
proportional to its duration.
It was a short time, but the
pontificate was a great one. I believe it was great because it showed the face
of the Church to be smiling, a face of the Church that showed mercy, and a face
that, in his death, can principally be summed up in one word: humility.
John Paul I was the incarnation of
humility. He was the humble servant who showed that the task of the pope is to
show others the light of Christ, not only the light of himself.
I believe his greatest teaching was
that of mercy, mentioned in the important discourses that he gave in 33 days,
which were a great testimony to his pontificate — a pontificate, in 1978, whose
memory continues to live on today.
How does he continue to
influence the Church today?
In these 33 days, John Paul I did
things that were later welcomed by his successors.
For example, Paul VI established
that his successors could choose whether or not to have a coronation. He [John
Paul I] chose not to have a coronation, but a simple Mass instead. He was a
Pope who had a lived experience of the [Second Vatican] Council and was in many
ways ahead of the Council. But for him, the application of the Council’s
reforms always remained in continuity with tradition.
I believe that his most famous
phrase was “In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus
caritas” (Unity in necessary things, liberty in doubtful things,
charity in all things).
How did he react to his
During the pre-conclave, he did
everything to keep a low profile, to avoid being in the spotlight. He never
intervened in anything, but I believe that he knew he was “in danger” [of being
But he reacted with humility,
accepting the decision of the cardinals who voted for him almost unanimously.
Some have said that John Paul I
was chosen mainly because he was an “inoffensive candidate,” or because of his
personal warmth and kindness. Would you agree with that view?
Absolutely not. He was a man of
great depth who was respected by Paul VI and many cardinals. He was a supporter
of the council but certainly not of the era of post-conciliar abuses. He was a
pastor firmly rooted in doctrine, but open to the social and pastoral field.
His death continues to provoke
rumors of a conspiracy, that he was poisoned and the victim of foul play. As
someone who has studied his death in depth, what is your response to these
The death of John Paul I was
completely unexpected. Everyone in the Vatican — in the Holy See, who were his
associates — were all surprised because many had gone on vacation.
was the end of the summer, and they were coming to terms with the death of Paul
VI and had been resting after all the preparations of that conclave to elect a
new pope. So they were absolutely not prepared for this, and the first
announcements over the radio and through the media were not true.
was not true, for example, was that he was reading Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ.
It was also not true that a nun
wasn’t supposed to enter the Pope’s room: She normally came in to bring the
coffee. Also, because the Pope seemed to be in good health, some people started
talking about a conspiracy.
But the Pope had two aunts in his
family who died in exactly the same way he did. So there isn’t any mystery to
How confident are you that he
will be beatified or even canonized?
I believe that, yes, he will be
beatified — because he remains in the hearts of so many people, and there’s a
reputation for true holiness. I also believe it will happen soon.
writes from Rome.