33 Days of the Smiling Pope

A conversation about the late pope, an ‘incarnation of humility.’

This past 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 legacy.

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 election?

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 elected].

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 rumors?

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.

It 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.

What 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 discover.

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.

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.