The 20th century was a great era for popes, with several recognised as saints. Pope Francis himself has canonised Pope St John XXIII, Pope St Paul VI and Pope St John Paul II and the cause of Venerable Pope Pius XII, who hid 477 Roman Jews from the Nazis in the Vatican and a further 3,000 in Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence, is also progressing well, as indeed it should.
On September 4th Pope John Paul I will be the latest to take a major step toward sainthood when he will be beatified by the Pope Francis in St Peter’s Basilica.
Some may argue, as a result, that sainthood is coming a bit too easy for the modern Successors of St Peter. But it might just be the case that this was a uniquely holy generation.
It hasn’t always been like that: between 872 and 1012 popes were generally placed by Roman gangster families and a third of them died violently, sometimes horribly, although they were not martyrs.
The sanctity of John Paul I deserves to be assessed on its merits. These include a compelling miracle obtained for his beatification, involving the sudden and inexplicable healing of Candela Giarda Sosa, an 11-year-old girl from Paraná, Argentina, who was expected to die from inflammatory encephalopathy and septic shock on the night her mother and a priest implored the intercession of John Paul to save her life.
He has left a tremendous legacy even though he ruled for just 33 days, elected on 26 August 1978 and dying from a massive heart attack on 28 September at the age of just 65, with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin writing in L’Osservatore Romano that “Pope John Paul I was and remains a reference point in the history of the universal Church”.
There is also a substantial cult in his honour, and it includes Pope Francis who has often taken “the smiling pope” as the model for his own style of papacy.
In his 2016 book, The Name of God is Mercy, Francis refers to John Paul I more often than any of his predecessors. He quotes a homily of September 6 1978, in which the pope said he was chosen “because the Lord preferred that certain things not be engraved in bronze or marble but in the dust, so that if the writing had remained, it would have been clear that the merit was only God’s”.
Pope Francis also instituted the John Paul I Foundation in 2020 to “promote and disseminate awareness of the thought, works, and example” of his predecessor.
So what exactly did John Paul I do to stand out? His chief characteristic was perhaps his humility.
He was born on October 171912 in Canale d’Agordo in the Veneto region of northern Italy, and baptised Albino Luciani, his father was a bricklayer and Socialist Party organiser who permitted him to enter the priesthood as long as he stood “on the side of the workers”.
He seldom forgot his background. George Weigel, writing in “Witness to Hope”, notes that as Cardinal of Venice he cancelled “the gaudy procession of gondolas and other watercraft that typically marked the ingress of a new Patriarch … to his see, avoided the haut monde of Venetian society, and sold the pectoral cross given him by John XXIII to kick of a fund-raising drive for a centre for the retarded”.
On election as pope, John Paul I would speak of himself as “I” instead of “we” and he refused a coronation, preferring a simple inauguration instead where he received the pallium as the symbol of the Bishop of Rome. He “humanised” the papacy, and would joke with journalists and hug children.
Yet behind the scenes he was serious about consolidating the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. He may have remained “on the side of the workers” but he was never a Socialist. On the contrary, he very much a loyal son of the Church, seeking to make the Catholic faith accessible and attractive to the modern world without watering down doctrine, at the same time as he moved immediately to counter any wildly liberal or hard left excesses of post-conciliar fervour.
This included a stern letter to the members of the Society of Jesus, which his death meant that he did not deliver (it was left to his successor to reform the order), but which was delivered to the world’s Jesuit procurators so they could examine his thoughts.
It reveals that John Paul intended to go much further than Pope Paul in demanding obedience from the Jesuits at a time when they were rebelling against Church teaching on contraception, priestly celibacy and the ordination of women.
He wished to give them “the unvarnished truth”, according to one Jesuit who has seen the unpublished speech, in an approach which does not tarry with that of the fluffy post-conciliar reformist he is often depicted to be.
Principally, he warned the Jesuits strongly against secularisation and he made six demands of them, including the insistence that they should not confuse or disorient the faithful but be authentic interpreters of the Magisterium.
At a time when confusion is once again reigning over Church teaching in matters of morality in particular, it is John Paul I who suddenly appears as indeed a very fitting candidate to be raised to the altars.
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