Get to know soon-to-be-Blessed Pope John Paul I

A Pillar reading (and watching) list

The Vatican announced Wednesday that Pope John Paul I will soon be beatified, after the approval of a miracle attributed to his intercession. 

If you don’t know much about John Paul I, there’s probably a good reason - he had only been pope for 33 days when he died unexpectedly in September 1978.

But despite his short papacy, John Paul I was beloved for his humility, charity, and calls for peace.

Want to learn a little more about soon-to-be Blessed John Paul I? The Pillar has you covered.

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First words

Cardinal Albino Luciani was elected pope on August 26, 1978. He appeared on the balcony of the Sistine Chapel with his broad signature smile - the same smile that earned him the nickname “The Smiling Pope.”

The new pope chose as his name John Paul, combining the names of his two direct predecessors, Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, both of whom have been canonized saints in recent years.

Inaugural homily

John Paul I’s first homily as pope came on September 3, 1978, at a Mass for the inauguration of his Petrine ministry. 

During his homily, the new pope spoke about St. Peter and the nature of the papacy. He particularly emphasized that Peter’s authority did not come from his own merits, but from the call of Christ. John Paul I said he recognized with both trust and trepidation that Christ was calling him to follow in Peter’s footsteps as leader of the Catholic Church.

“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:18) are the weighty, great and solemn words that Jesus speaks to Simon, son of John, after his profession of faith. This profession of faith was not the product of the Bethsaida fisherman's human logic or the expression of any special insight of his or the effect of some psychological impulse; it was rather the mysterious and singular result of a real revelation of the Father in heaven. Jesus changes Simon's name to Peter, thus signifying the conferring of a special mission. He promises to build on him his Church, which will not be overthrown by the forces of evil or death. He grants him the keys of the kingdom of God, thus appointing him the highest official of his Church, and gives him the power to interpret authentically the law of God. 

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Homily at the Possession of the Chair of the Bishop of Rome

A few weeks later, a Mass was celebrated for John Paul I to take possession of the Chair of the Bishop of Rome. During the Mass, which was held at the Archbasilica of St John Lateran, the pope said he would strive to imitate St. Gregory the Great, who dedicated a lengthy section of his work Regula Pastoralis to the subject of how pastors should teach.

For forty whole chapters Gregory indicates in a concrete way various forms of instruction according to the various circumstances of social conditions, age, health, and moral temperament of the hearers. Poor and rich, cheerful and melancholic, superiors and subjects, learned and ignorant, cheeky and shy, and so forth; all are there in this book, it is like the valley of Jehoshaphat. At the second Vatican Council, there was a seemingly new thing which came to be called "pastoral approach", not indeed that which was taught to the pastors, but that which the pastors did to face up to the needs, the anxieties, the hopes of men. This "new" approach had already been applied many centuries earlier by Gregory, both in preaching and in the government of the Church.

John Paul I also expressed his desire to be close to the people, and to be a true servant to them, especially the littlest among them.

Audiences

John Paul I held just four general audiences in his short time as pope. But these addresses were enough to display what would be known as hallmarks of his brief papacy, including a call to compassion and charity, particularly for the outcast in society:

Heat and food are not enough, there is the heart; we must think of the heart of our old people. The Lord said that parents must be respected and loved, even when they are old.

He also spoke about sin and woundedness within the Church:

The Church is also a mother. If she continues Christ, and Christ is good, the Church too must be good; good to everyone. But if by chance there should sometimes be bad people in the Church? We have our mother. If mother is sick, if my mother by chance should become lame, I love her even more. It is the same, in the Church. If there are, and there are, defects and shortcomings, our affection for the Church must never fail. 

And he talked about what it means to love God without reservation:

God is too great, he deserves too much from us for us to be able to throw to him, as to a poor Lazarus, a few crumbs of our time and our heart. He is infinite good and will be our eternal happiness: money, pleasure, the fortunes of this world, compared with him, are just fragments of good and fleeting moments of happiness. It would not be wise to give so much of ourselves to these things and little of ourselves to Jesus.

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Death

John Paul I died unexpectedly on September 28, 1978. News of his death shocked the world. For the second time in just weeks, the Church prepared for the funeral of a pope and a conclave to elect a new one. The Vatican reported that John Paul I had suffered a massive heart attack. However, conspiracy theories soon arose, based largely on the fact that the pope had been in good health at the time of his death, and what were perceived to be inconsistencies in the Vatican’s account of his final hours.

Funeral

Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri, dean of the Sacred College, delivered the homily at Pope John Paul I’s funeral. He recalled the pope as a wise teacher who cared deeply for suffering and oppressed people.

In Pope John Paul we greeted and venerated the Vicar of Christ, Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pastor of the universal Church; but in the brief contact had with him, we were quickly struck and fascinated by his instinctive goodness, by his innate modesty, by his sincere simplicity in deed and word...Through his speeches we are able to get a glimpse of the great lines that would have been the programme of his pontificate: the authenticity and integrity of faith, the perfection of Christian life, the love of great discipline in the many activities that lead to the growth of the kingdom of God as well as the spiritual and temporal prosperity of all mankind. 

The John Paul I Vatican Foundation

Pope Francis established last year a foundation to study the life and teachings of John Paul I. At the time of its establishment, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin described the papacy of John Paul I as significant, despite its brevity. Parolin said that by studying the late pope’s spirituality and teachings, the Church can continue to learn to love God:

Closeness, humility, simplicity, insistence on the mercy of God, love of neighbour and solidarity were his salient traits. He was a bishop who lived the experience of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, applied it, and in his brief Pontificate helped the Church advance along the main paths it indicated: a return to the wellsprings of the Gospel and a renewed missionary approach, episcopal collegiality, service in ecclesial poverty, seeking Christian unity, interreligious dialogue, dialogue with contemporaneity and international dialogue, conducted with perseverance and determination, in favour of justice and peace.