Between August and October of 1978, the Catholic Church was ruled by three popes.
The first was Paul VI. Gravely ill in late July of that year, he died as a result of a massive heart attack on August 6 at his residence at Castel Gandolfo. Slightly more than two months later, on Oct. 16, the Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected to the papacy, the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years. He took the name John Paul II and would be the second-longest serving pope in modern history, occupying the Seat of Peter until April 2005.
His diminutive predecessor, on the other hand, was one of the shortest-reigning popes in history, serving for only 33 days from August 26 to September 28. In that brief month, however, Albino Luciani, the former Patriarch of Venice, captivated the world with his humility, good humor and a frequently beaming expression that earned him the nickname “The Smiling Pope”.
He was the first pope to adopt a double name, in honor, he said at the time, of his two predecessors. On the day of his election, the reluctant Albino Luciani became Pope John Paul I.
Today he is remembered only vaguely by some Catholics, many of whom were born and grew to maturity during the reign of Pope Saint John Paul II. But in Luciani’s time he was welcomed as a fresh breeze blowing into the papacy, and soon mourned by a Church that collectively wondered what might have been.
Albino Luciani did not want to be pope. Following the conclave at which he was elected, cardinals recalled him saying that he would decline the papacy if the cardinals’ votes fell in his favor. His niece Pia recalled that he wrote her at the time of the conclave, expressing relief that he was “out of danger” of being elected. When the final ballots were counted, however, he reluctantly accepted, saying that he was obeying the will of the Holy Spirit.
His openhanded, friendly and self-effacing demeanor immediately captivated the faithful and even the non-Catholic public around the world. He was quickly misjudged by some in the Curia as lacking sufficient gravitas to be pope, but this did not affect his approach to his nascent papacy. As a bishop, he had picked as his episcopal motto a single word: Humilitas—humility. And he described himself as “a poor man accustomed to small things and silence.”
It was no posture. Born in the town of Canale D’Agordo in the Dolomites, Luciani came from a poor family who were no strangers to hunger. He was, however, remembered by man for his conspicuous generosity, even as a child.
He never forgot his humble roots. As bishop of Vittorio Veneto, Luciani visited his parishes on a bicycle. “Later, when taking official possession of St. Mark’s Basilica, he dispensed with the fanfare traditionally accorded the new patriarch of the ancient archdiocese of Venice,” wrote Mo Guernon in the October 2011 issue of “America” magazine. “At his official residence he literally opened his door to all who knocked: priests, penitents, prostitutes, drug addicts, drunks, the destitute—everyone.”
As pope, he had a memorable greeting for any and all who came to see him at the Vatican: “How can I serve you?”
Luciani was uncommonly well-read and was a particular devotee of English literature. This affinity formed part of the foundation of a series of letters that he wrote each month as Patriarch of Venice and submitted to the Italian Christian newspaper Messagero di San Antonio at the paper’s behest. The letters, addressed to various historical, literary, religious, artistic and even imaginary figures—from Charles Dickens to Mark Twain to Hippocrates to Pinocchio—were collected in a highly popular book that was published in 1976 called “Illustrissimi”.
In the books original preface, the English Cardinal Basil Hume drew a pinpoint portrait of the author in a single paragraph:
“Albino Luciani…is revealed in this book as a man rooted in the Gospel, but with his feet firmly on 20th century ground and with his eyes twinkling as he calmly surveyed the contemporary, tempestuous, troubled world, smiling at its absurdities, regretting its evil, rejoicing in its good,” wrote Cardinal Hume. “A man firm in his faith in God, in his hope, and in his love for all the children of the Father, wayward or docile. Humorous when he muses on the follies and frivolities of people, he is firm in maintaining Christian ethics and moral standards. A consummate teacher, widely read, a born raconteur with a fund of anecdotes and illustrations at his command, a man who understood people from within, who identified with them, yet a man to whom his faith was the breath of life and the source of joy.”
The death of Pope John Paul I was abrupt and entirely unexpected. When his body was discovered in the morning by a nun who worked in the papal household and regularly brought him his morning coffee, he was sitting up in bed and apparently had been reading. His death was generally attributed to a heart attack.
“He passed as a meteor which unexpectedly lights up the heavens and then disappears, leaving us amazed and astonished,” said Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri at the papal funeral Mass.
Time has only burnished the memory of “The Smiling Pope”.
“In just a month Pope John Paul I captured the hearts of people worldwide, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who witnessed in him the welcome but unexpected triumph of humility,” wrote Mo Guernon. “Many of us intuitively recognized in the flash of his benign grin, the gentleness of his manner and the compassion at the core of his public talks a beacon of hope. That Luciani transfixed the world during his abbreviated pontificate is no exaggeration: he was a radiant man who taught us how to live and love.”
The boy who frequently went without shoes who grew to fill the Shoes of the Fisherman “only needed a month to leave a deep mark on the Catholic imagination,” wrote John L. Allen, Jr. in 2012 in the National Catholic Reporter. “In part, that’s because he seemed exactly what most Catholics pray their leaders will be: warm, compassionate, genuinely happy to be with ordinary people, a man of obvious faith who didn’t wear his piety on his sleeve or take himself too seriously… His papacy is for Catholics what the Kennedy administration has always been for Americans: a sort of Rorschach test allowing people to project their own hopes and dreams.”