Canale D’Agordo: The Land That Formed Blessed Pope John Paul I’s Faith
The ‘Smiling Pope’ will be beatified Sept. 4 in Rome.
CANALE D’AGORDO, Italy — Driving along a winding, tree-lined road in the heart of the dramatic Dolomite Mountain range of northern Italy, you eventually reach the picturesque small town of Canale d’Agordo, nestled in a valley and bordered by towering peaks.
A sign indicating you’re arriving at the “town of Papa Luciani” greets you on the main road before a side road takes you across a brook and right into the small town square.
Images of Pope John Paul I, dubbed the “Smiling Pope” due to his cheerful countenance, fill the streets, along with flowers and Vatican banners.
Since July, the 1,230 residents of Canale d’Agordo have been celebrating the life of their beloved citizen, whom Pope Francis will beatify in Rome on Sept. 4, and events here will continue until Oct. 17, the 110th anniversary of Albino Luciani’s birth in 1912.
John Paul I reigned as pope for just 33 days in 1978, before he died suddenly of a heart attack in the papal apartments. A former patriarch of Venice, he was the first pope to take two names, in memory of Sts. John XXIII and Paul VI, and the last of a long line of Italian popes dating back to 1523.
The day before I visited, the town had marked the 42nd anniversary of the Pope’s sudden death with a Mass in the town square, celebrated by the local ordinary, Bishop Renato Marangoni of Belluno-Feltre.
As the beatification drew closer, Canale d’Agordo had become “a small and beautiful Vatican,” Bishop Marangoni observed in his homily, adding that “here everything speaks of don Albino — the church, the piazza, the mountains, this valley.”
The whole town has been given over to Albino Luciani: Statues and memorabilia fill the town’s church and museum, and his childhood home is located just a short walk from the center. A late-19th-century building that was partly a barn and stable before being extended and modified in the 20th century, Albino Luciani spent his formative years there, often in abject poverty.
Albino’s father, Giovanni Luciani (1872-1952), was a bricklayer who was already a widower by 1906, after he lost his first wife, Rosa Fiocco. With two deaf-mute daughters to raise, Amalia and Pia (three sons all called Albino had already died within a few months of life), in 1911, Giovanni married Bortola Tancon (1879-1947), a pious woman and catechist with whom he had four children: Albino (1912-1978), Tranquillo Federico (1915-1916), Edoardo (1917-2008) and Antonia (1920-2009).
Albino Luciani’s early life was scarred by the First World War and poverty: “The newspapers have reminded everyone, perhaps insisting too much, that my family was poor,” he once wrote. “I can confirm that, in the year of the invasion, I truly starved, as I did later; at least I’ll be able to understand the troubles of those who are starving!”
But in the face of poverty, Albino’s mother Bortola was “tenacious, kind and strong at the same time, which allowed her to raise her children with the values, integrity and consistency set out by the Gospel,” a museum description explained.
The parish church of St. John the Baptist, located in the town square, is just a five-minute walk from the house. Its main altar is dedicated to the late Pope, with a modern bas-relief on the front of Christ handing over the keys of St. Peter to the late Pontiff. Next to the baptismal font is a copy of his baptismal certificate — Albino was baptized at home on the day of his birth because the midwife feared his life was in danger.
Next door to the church is a museum dedicated to the life of Albino Luciani. There, one learns about his seminary formation, his ordination as priest in 1935, his time as professor and vice rector at the Belluno seminary, his appointment as chancellor to the bishop of Belluno and later vicar general for the diocese, and then bishop of Vittorio Veneto and patriarch of Venice.
“The Pope, too, was a student,” he once said recalling his formative years. “But I only thought about my youth and my parish. Nobody came to tell me ‘You’re going to be Pope.’ Oh! If only they had told me, I would have studied more, I would have got ready.”
In 1958, Father Luciani was appointed bishop of Vittorio Veneto by Pope John XXIII; and as such, he took part in all the sessions of the Second Vatican Council.
The museum records a letter he wrote in 1964 to Msgr. Francesco Sartor, vice president of the diocesan liturgical commission, enthusiastically commenting on the changes to the new liturgy brought about by the Council and proposing it as a model for the diocese.
Like many of the bishops at that time, the museum explains that Bishop Luciani embraced various topics addressed by the Council, “such as religious liberty, the importance of the laity, episcopal collegiality and more.”
The museum contends that Pope Francis is “following in the footsteps of his predecessors, in particular Albino Luciani” who was known for his “simplicity,” the renunciation of “gaudy external symbols,” commitment to the poor, and an emphasis on mercy. It also reveals that in the 1978 conclave that elected him, Luciani voted for Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider, a Brazilian prelate and renowned advocate of liberation theology.
Speaking to the Register on Aug. 27, local trader Tancon Lino said the local residents of Canale d’Agordo were filled with “great joy” for the impending beatification. Pope Luciani’s elevation to the altars didn’t come as a surprise, he added, as the cause had been underway for some time. He also said the beatification is “good for the whole area — we’re in the Dolomites, which is known throughout the whole world, and so an added value is that it serves to draw attention to the region.”
Lino said that Pope John Paul I’s living relatives — some of his nephews and nieces — still live in the town and in the area.
Some 1,500 pilgrims from the Dioceses of Belluno and Vittorio Veneto are expected to be present for the beatification Mass on Sunday in St. Peter’s Square celebrated by Pope Francis, joining an expected 56,000 faithful.
A group of young pilgrims have been the first to leave for the Mass, having departed on Aug. 31 on a walking pilgrimage along the last stretch of the ancient Via Francigena pilgrims’ way that links Canterbury, England, to Rome. Despite her age and reported poor health, one of John Paul I’s nieces, Pia, will also be attending the beatification.
Bishop Marangoni will read the Rite of Beatification at the Mass, together with Cardinal Beniamino Stella, postulator for the cause of canonization, and Stefania Falasca, the deputy postulator. Falasca and her husband, Gianni Valente, both journalists, are old friends of Pope Francis.
The Holy See Press Office has said that, during the beatification, the postulators will hand the Holy Father “a reliquary containing the relics of the new Blessed.”
On the eve of the beatification, Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, the vicar of Rome, will preside over a prayer vigil in the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Following the beatification, Canale d’Agordo will host a large open-air Mass on Sept. 11.