THE SMILING POPE: THE LIFE
AND TEACHING OF JOHN PAUL I
by Raymond and
OSV Press, 2004
256 pages, $14.95
To order: (800) 348-2440
He “came and went,” in the words of Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri, “like a meteor in the Church's sky.” Indeed, John Paul I may have only presided over the Church for 33 days, but the “smiling pope” made an indelible mark in many a mind's eye. And that was before Cardinal Karol Wojtyla took his Petrine predecessor's name, along with his place in St. Peter's seat.
Albino Luciani had been a bishop since 1958. Before that, he was a seminary professor. It would be absurd to compare the tragically truncated “teaching” of one of the very shortest papacies with the voluminously expansive teachings that came from one of the very longest — but, in putting the two side by side, Raymond and Lauretta Seabeck suggest that John Paul II may have never been, if not for John Paul I.
The Smiling Pope is divided into two parts. The first 83 pages are a biography of John Paul I, from his youth in northern Italy through his brief pontificate. The last 139 pages contain assorted texts of Luciani's teaching, including sermons from his days as bishop of Vittorio Veneto and as patriarch of Venice, excerpts from his book Illustrissimi and his papal general audiences. A chronology of Luciani's life rounds out the book.
As for the texts: Every teacher and preacher has his stock of stories. Every good teacher and preacher knows how to use those stories to drive a point home. (Witness Jesus' parables.) Luciani's teaching was hardly innovative or radical. He preached a meat-and-potatoes Christianity while living the Catholic faith in all its depths, joys and mysteries.
“When they speak of adult Christians in prayer, sometimes they exaggerate,” he said. “Personally, when I speak alone with God and Our Lady, I prefer to feel myself a child rather than a grown-up… I send the grown-up on vacation, and the bishop along with him, and abandon myself to the spontaneous tenderness that a child has for its papa and mama. To be for a while before God…the child I once was, who wants to laugh and sometimes feels the need to cry so that he may be shown mercy, helps me to pray. The rosary, a simple and easy prayer, helps me to be a child.”
To read Papa Luciani's reflections here — be they on the virtues, family life, the sacraments, suffering, Sunday or love — is to receive a refreshing reminder of just how simple Christianity can be. At the same time, one forgets that their author is a priest, a seminary professor, a bishop — a pope. Luciani makes the Christian life sound simple and attractive enough that you can't help but feel challenged by his words to be a more authentic Christian. The secret, of course, is being ready to try, again and again, in the face of our failings as disciples. That, Luciani reminds us, is the human condition. He tells the story of Jonathan Swift's servant, who decided washing the mud off his boots after a long trip was a waste of time. “They'll only get dirty again,” he said. Swift said nothing until the next morning, when he announced he wanted to set out immediately. His servant protested he hadn't had breakfast. “So what?” Swift replied. “You'll only be hungry again!”
More than a quarter of a century has passed since Papa Luciani flashed across the Church's sky. As The Smiling Pope shows, the teachings of the man who was pope for a month will instruct the willing faithful until the end of time.
John Grondelski writes from