Today is the birthday (1912) of pope John Paul I (born Albino Luciani) who served as pope of the Catholic church and sovereign of the Vatican City from 26 August 1978 to his death 33 days later. Many readers will remember his successor John Paul II who took the papal name of his predecessor in honor of him, but John Paul I is a faint memory for most people, if they remember him at all. Although I take only cursory interest in the dealings of the Catholic church because I find its doctrines largely repellant, I am always interested in papal elections, and I followed the election of John Paul I closely. The impression I got at the time, was that John Paul I was a humble man who had intentions of downplaying the pomp of the papacy, much like the current pope. He was something of a compromise choice between two factions of the Curia who were divided by those who had supported the radical changes that John XXIII had made, especially via Vatican II (which dramatically overhauled the mass), and those who supported Paul VI, who was more traditionalist. His choice of the papal name John Paul signaled that he too was going to thread the needle between the two, and he did for the short period of his reign. He had rigidly traditional views of contraception, abortion, homosexuality, clerical celibacy, ordination of women, divorce, and sexuality in general, but he showed signs of overhauling the role of the papacy, and the Catholic church in general, in world affairs. Conspiracy theories abound concerning his death, because he was relatively young (65) when he died, and appeared to be in good health. Not a few (mostly amateur) historians have entertained the idea that he was poisoned by someone in the traditionalist faction of the Curia.
John Paul was noteworthy in many respects. He was the first pope born in the 20th century. He was the last pope (for now) to have been born in Italy – a long tradition stretching back to Clement VII, elected in 1523. His death 33 days after his election stirred the Curia into action to change its ways and start considering (seriously) candidates for pope who were not Italian-born, so as to give a more universal face to a church whose name (with a lower-case “c”) means “universal.” He was the first (and only) pope who chose a regnal name that had not been used before who called himself “the first.” The current pope adopted a new regnal name also, but he styles himself simply pope Francis (or Francesco). John Paul I stuck as a name historically because his successor also called himself John Paul and became “the second.” His regnal name was also unusual in that he was the first pope to have two names. John Paul I’s reign, while not the shortest, was one of the shortest in history, and made 1978 the first year of three popes since 1605.
Pope Paul VI died on 6th August 1978, ending a reign of fifteen years. Luciani was summoned to Rome for the conclave to elect the new pope. He was not considered papabile at the time though mentioned upon occasion in several papers, but a few cardinals approached him with their opinion that he would make a fine pontiff because he was more warm and pastoral like John XXIII and less Curial, as Paul VI had been. Luciani was elected on the fourth ballot of the August 1978 papal conclave. Luciani had previously said to his secretary, father Diego Lorenzi and to father Prospero Grech (later a cardinal himself), that he would decline the papacy if elected, and that he intended to vote for cardinal Lorscheider, whom he had met in Brazil. Cardinal Jaime Sin of the Philippines told him: “You will be the new pope.”
When he was asked by cardinal Jean-Marie Villot if he accepted his election, Luciani replied, “May God forgive you for what you have done” but accepted election. After his election, when Cardinal Sin paid him homage, Luciani said: “You were a prophet, but my reign will be a short one”. In the aftermath of the election, the pope confided to his brother Edoardo that his first thought was to call himself Pius XIII in honor of Pius XI, but he gave up on the idea, worried that the traditionalist members of the Church might exploit this choice of regnal name. Instead he chose John Paul, ostensibly because John XXIII had made him bishop and Paul VI had made him cardinal and patriarch of Veneto, his home region.
During the days following the conclave, the cardinals were generally elated at the reaction to John Paul I, some of them happily saying that they had elected “God’s candidate”. Argentine cardinal Eduardo Francisco Pironio stated, “We were witnesses of a moral miracle.” Mother Teresa, commenting about the new pope, said, “He has been the greatest gift of God, a sun beam of God’s love shining in the darkness of the world.” British primate cardinal Hume declared: “Once it had happened, it seemed totally and entirely right. We felt as if our hands were being guided as we wrote his name on the paper”.
After he became pope John Paul laid out six plans which would dictate his pontificate:
To renew the church through the policies implemented by Vatican II.
To revise canon law.
To remind the church of its duty to preach the Gospel.
To promote church unity without watering down doctrine.
To promote dialogue.
To encourage world peace and social justice.
After his election, John Paul I quickly made several decisions that would “humanize” the office of pope, admitting publicly he had turned scarlet when Paul VI placed his stole on Luciani’s shoulders when he visited Venice on 16th September 1972. He was the first modern pope to speak in the singular form, using ‘I’ instead of the royal “we”, though the official records of his speeches were often rewritten in more formal style by aides, who reinstated the royal “we” in press releases and in L’Osservatore Romano. He initially refused to use the sedia gestatoria (a papal throne carried shoulder high through the streets) until others convinced him of its need in order to allow himself to be seen by crowds. He was the last pope to use it. He was the first pope to refuse to be crowned. Instead of a coronation, he inaugurated his papacy with a “papal inauguration” where he received the papal pallium as the symbol of his position as bishop of Rome.
Here is a small sample of John Paul threading the needle. In 1975, when he was still cardinal, Luciani said this in a talk to a group of nuns about ordaining women:
You will ask: what about … the priesthood itself? I can say to you: Christ bestowed the pastoral ministry on men alone, on his apostles. Did he mean this to be valid only for a short time, almost as though he made allowances for the prejudice about the inferiority of women prevalent in his time? Or did he intend it to be valid always? Let it be very clear: Christ never accepted the prejudice about the inferiority of women: they are always admirable figures in the Gospels, more so than the apostles themselves. The priesthood, however, is a service given by means of spiritual powers and not a form of superiority. Through the will of Christ, women — in my judgment — carry out a different, complementary, and precious service in the church, but they are not “possible priests” … That does not do wrong to women.
So . . . women are really, really admirable, but they can’t be priests because God does not want this. If you want to know why I have no time for Catholic dogma, look no farther. White men have dominated the papacy for 2000 years, and even today they are not ready to give it up. Maybe if the Catholic church starts ordaining women or electing people of color as pope, Christ will return and Armageddon will commence !?!?!?! Although I am a dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian from birth, and an ordained minister, I am an acknowledged wayward servant in that regard, also, because I detest so much about Christianity as it is preached and practiced in the modern world, regardless of flavor. I’ll leave railing against Presbyterians for another post. They get far more ire from me than Catholics. Atheists are not exempt either.
On 29th September 1978, 33 days into his papacy, John Paul I was found dead lying in his bed, with a book opened beside him, and the reading light on. According to a Vatican doctor, he probably died around 11 pm of a heart attack that occurred on the night of 28th September. John Paul I’s funeral was held in Saint Peter’s Square on 4th October 1978, celebrated by cardinal Carlo Confalonieri. In his eulogy of the late pope, he described him as a flashing comet who briefly lit up the church. He then was laid to rest in the Vatican grottoes.
John Paul was born in Forno di Canale (now Canale d’Agordo) in Belluno, a province of the Veneto region of northern Italy. Belluno is known for a kind of stuffed pasta called casunziei whose stuffing is beetroot and potatoes, sometimes flavored with poppy seed, sometimes nutmeg. If you want to make these at home you will need fresh pasta (see HINTS) rolled into thin, large rectangles. The filling consists of 2 cups of beets that have been roasted peeled and mashed, 1 cup of mashed potatoes, 1 cup of fresh ricotta, and 2 tablespoons of poppy seeds. Mix the ingredients thoroughly, and sauté them in a deep skillet with a little butter, and with salt and pepper to taste, until the dish is fragrant. Cool to room temperature and then use a tablespoon of the filling to stuff the pasta. Cut the pasta in squares, place the filling on one side, and fold the other side over to form a rectangle. Cook in boiling water for a minute or two so that the pasta is cooked but still al dente. Fresh pasta cooks very quickly. Serve with a cream sauce.