The pope we lost: why we must not forget John Paul I

John Paul I won the public’s heart after his election on August 26, 1978

Forty years ago this week, Cardinal Albino Luciani of Venice was elected pope. Next month marks the 40th anniversary of his death. The only thing most younger Catholics know about John Paul I is that he reigned for 33 days. They may also think they know that he was murdered. He wasn’t, but his death remains mysterious.

It would be reasonable to assume that John Paul, found dead in the papal apartments in the early morning of September 29, 1978, was the shortest-reigning pope. In fact, no fewer than nine had shorter reigns. The briefest was 13 days: Urban VII in 1590. Confusingly, until 1961 the record was three days. Pope-elect Stephen was a cardinal but not a bishop when he was chosen in 752. The Church has changed its mind twice about his validity, and he’s currently an also-ran.

These things weren’t so surprising in an era when people often dropped dead. But in 1978 it was assumed that a 65-year-old man in apparently good health, and with world-class medical care, would be around for at least a decade.

The shock was tremendous. My saintly grandmother, enchanted by the “Smiling Pope”, nearly fainted. Some pontiffs instantly win the public’s heart: John Paul II and Francis are examples, but so was Papa Luciani. That was no ordinary smile. In photographs he looks like an Italian grandfather who’s just walked in to his surprise birthday party.

Losing him was heartbreaking and surreal. Canon Tony Churchill, then a young priest at Wonersh seminary, was shaving with the radio in the background. “I heard the words ‘the new Pope has died’ but they didn’t sink in,” he remembers. “It was a terrible moment of déjà vu – we’d only just had the funeral of Paul VI.”

At school, the Irish Brothers were holding back tears. It didn’t seem real until, on the way home, I grabbed a copy of the Reading Evening Post. It’s in front of me now. NEW POPE DIES said the headline – and there was a photo of him lying in state to prove it. It didn’t occur to me that someone must have been in a hurry: they’d only found him that morning.

And then, of course, there was another conclave. The outcome was thrilling. John Paul II set about restoring the morale and the political influence of the Church with such charisma that his predecessor was mentioned only in the context of speculation about his death.

From time to time, people still wonder how Luciani’s pontificate might have developed. Perhaps such exercises in alternative history are always a waste of time. But even if it’s a worthwhile exercise, we’re handicapped by lack of information about John Paul I. Try googling his name. You won’t find much online. The best sources are two books written many years ago: Fr Andrew Greeley’s The Making of the Popes (1979), an account of the 1978 conclaves based on extensive leaking by cardinals; and A Thief in the Night (1989), in which John Cornwell expertly debunks the theory that the Vatican murdered John Paul – but demonstrates that it told numerous lies.

What do we know about Albino Luciani? He was a gentle north Italian with a sharp mind: he had a doctorate in theology and was fast-tracked for promotion, though – significantly – anxieties about his frail health delayed his episcopal ordination. He was a successful country bishop, close to his people, but seemed overwhelmed and depressed when, in 1970, he was plunged into vicious post-conciliar infighting as Patriarch of Venice.

He wasn’t an obvious choice to succeed Paul VI, but the cardinals’ choices were restricted by the fact that the best-qualified candidates had enough supporters to block each other. Luciani was patently holy and clever. He had an attractive cultural hinterland – he loved Dickens, Goethe and Chesterton – and a solid record of championing the poor while denouncing communism.

His unstuffiness as pope, symbolised by his decision to renounce the papal tiara, delighted millions of Catholics. But, as Greeley points out, even during those 33 days he attracted sneering criticism from some commentators, who claimed to be embarrassed by the childlike language he employed.

There was also confusion about whether he was a conservative or a liberal. Cardinal Luciani had the knack of sounding progressive while carefully adhering to Church teaching. (A comparison with Pope Francis is instructive.) Also, did he have the emotional and physical strength to bear the weight of his office?

Canon Churchill was in Rome for the conclave that elected John Paul II. “I quickly realised that there were two narratives being put about – two different Lucianis, if you like,” he says.

“The first one portrayed a reformer who was going to clean up Vatican finances and root out corruption in the Curia, much to the alarm of the old guard. The second was that he was frightened by his election, poor old thing, and perhaps it was a mercy that God took him. I didn’t buy this – it seemed to be the work of spin doctors speaking on behalf of officials who were glad he didn’t live to threaten them.”

At this point we can’t avoid the question: did one or more of those officials make sure he didn’t live?

My answer is: read A Thief in the Night (still available). To cut a long story short, Cornwell establishes beyond reasonable doubt that John Paul I died of natural causes. Yet this does not let the Vatican off the hook; far from it.

John Paul’s grossly swollen ankles pointed to imminent heart failure or a pulmonary embolism. People close to the new pope could see that he was a sick man. They did nothing. He died alone – probably in agony on the floor of his bedroom, says Cornwell, though this is disputed. At any rate, spokesmen lied that he was discovered by his secretary, and suppressed the fact that John Paul had complained of severe chest pains hours before he died.

This is shameful. The Vatican has only itself to blame for the conspiracy theories that the pope was bumped off by his enemies.

Those theories have been debunked. But other questions remain. Was Albino Luciani more liberal than Paul VI and John Paul II?

There’s strong evidence to suggest that he was. He didn’t much like the ban on artificial contraception in Humanae Vitae. He defended the parents of the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, when she was born just before the death of Pope Paul. Yet, crucially, he signalled that he had no intention of reversing the contraception ban or of altering the Church’s stance on IVF.

In other words, he favoured a combination of pastoral flexibility and fidelity to the Magisterium. This is a tricky position to take, as we have learned painfully over the past five years. John Paul I might have come adrift – but it’s worth noting that he employed language with far greater precision than Pope Francis. Perhaps he might have turned out to be the pope that today’s moderate liberals hoped Francis would be. But, alas, given his state of health, even first-rate doctors would have struggled to keep him alive.

Can we be sure of anything, then? I think so. Albino Luciani was a pope of exemplary holiness, one of the loveliest men ever to occupy the chair of Peter. Look again at that smile. We should rejoice if, before long, there are two John Pauls in the Church’s calendar of saints.

Damian Thompson is editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald and associate editor of The Spectator

This article first appeared in the August 31 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here