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John Paul I

John Paul I
as Cardinal Albino Luciani in 1973
Papacy began 26 August 1978
Papacy ended 28 September 1978
Predecessor Paul VI
Successor John Paul II
Ordination 7 July 1935
by Girolamo Bortignon
Consecration 27 December 1958
by John XXIII
Created Cardinal 5 March 1973
by Paul VI
Personal details
Birth name Albino Luciani
Born (1912-10-17)17 October 1912
Canale d'Agordo, Kingdom of Italy
Died 28 September 1978(1978-09-28) (aged 65)
Apostolic Palace, Vatican City
Previous post
Motto Humilitas (Humility)
Coat of arms
Other popes named John Paul

Pope John Paul I (Latin: Ioannes Paulus I), born Albino Luciani (Italian pronunciation: [alˈbino luˈtʃani]; 17 October 1912 – 28 September 1978), was the head of the Catholic Church from his election to the papacy on 26 August to his sudden death 33 days later on 28 September 1978. His 33-day reign is among the shortest in papal history, resulting in the most recent Year of Three Popes. John Paul I was the first Pope to be born in the 20th century and the last Pope to die in it. In fact, he is the only Pope to have lived his entire life in the 20th century. John Paul I remains the most recent Italian-born pope, ending a succession of Italian-born popes that started with Clement VII in 1523. He was declared a Servant of God by his successor, Pope John Paul II, on 23 November 2003.

After he ascended to the papacy, John Paul I explained in his first Angelus address the reason behind his choice of name which happened to be the first dual papal name in history. He said that he called himself this in honour of his two immediate predecessors Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI. He explained that he was indebted to John XXIII for naming him a bishop and to Paul VI for creating him a cardinal. His sudden death caused much suspicion among people which have led to a number of conspiracy theories in relation to his death. John Paul I was mentioned by his successor after the latter's election several weeks after his death.

In Italy, he is remembered with the appellatives of "Il Papa del Sorriso" (The Smiling Pope)[1] and "Il Sorriso di Dio" (The smile of God).[2] Time magazine and other publications referred to him as The September Pope.[3]

Early life and education

Albino Luciani was born on 17 October 1912 in Forno di Canale (now Canale d'Agordo) in Belluno, a province of the Veneto region in Northern Italy. He was the son of Giovanni Luciani (1872?–1952), a bricklayer, and Bortola Tancon (1879?–1948). Albino was followed by two brothers, Federico (1915–1916) and Edoardo (1917–2008), and a sister, Antonia (1920–2009).

Luciani entered the minor seminary of Feltre in 1923, where his teachers found him "too lively", and later went on to the major seminary of Belluno. During his stay at Belluno, he attempted to join the Jesuits, but was denied by the seminary's rector, Bishop Giosuè Cattarossi.[4]

Ordination and teaching career

Ordained a priest on 7 July 1935, Luciani then served as a curate in his native Forno de Canale before becoming a professor and the vice-rector of the Belluno seminary in 1937. Among the different subjects, he taught dogmatic and moral theology, canon law and sacred art.

In 1941, Luciani began to seek a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University, which required at least one year's attendance in Rome. However, the seminary's superiors wanted him to continue teaching during his doctoral studies; the situation was resolved by a special dispensation of Pope Pius XII himself on 27 March 1941. His thesis (The origin of the human soul according to Antonio Rosmini) largely attacked Rosmini's theology and earned him his doctorate magna cum laude.

In 1947, he was named vicar general to Bishop Girolamo Bortignon, OFM Cap, of Belluno. Two years later, in 1949, he was placed in charge of diocesan catechetics.


On 15 December 1958, Luciani was appointed Bishop of Vittorio Veneto by Pope John XXIII. He received his episcopal consecration on the following 27 December from Pope John XXIII himself, with Bishops Bortignon and Gioacchino Muccin serving as the co-consecrators. As a bishop, he participated in all the sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965).

On 15 December 1969, he was appointed as the new Patriarch of Venice by Pope Paul VI and took possession of the archdiocese on 3 February 1970. Pope Paul VI created Luciani the Cardinal-Priest of S. Marco in the consistory on 5 March 1973.



Pope Paul VI died on August 6, 1978, ending a reign of fifteen years. Luciani was summoned to Rome for the conclave to ensure the election of a new pontiff. Luciani was not considered to be papabile as such, but some came to him and said that he would make a fine pontiff. The electors did not want a Curial figure, but a warm and pastoral figure like Pope John XXIII. Giovanni Benelli of Florence (a possible candidate for the papacy) favoured Luciani to become the new pontiff and voted for him. Luciani was elected on the fourth ballot of the August 1978 papal conclave. Luciani had previously said to his secretary Diego Lorenzi and to priest Prospero Grech (later a cardinal) that he would decline the papacy in the case of being elected. [5] However, when he was asked by Jean-Marie Villot if he accepted his election, he said, "May God forgive you for what you have done" and accepted his election. Senior Cardinal Deacon Pericle Felici announced that the Cardinals had elected Venice patriarch Albino Luciani to be Pope John Paul I.[6] He chose the regnal name of John Paul, the first double name in the history of the papacy, explaining in his Angelus that he took it as a thankful honour to his two immediate predecessors: John XXIII, who had named him a bishop, and Paul VI, who had named him Patriarch of Venice and a cardinal.[7] He was also the first pope to designate himself explicitly as "the first" with the name.[8]

Observers have suggested that his selection was as a candidate linked to the rumoured divisions between rival camps within the College of Cardinals:[7]

  • Conservatives and Curialists supporting Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, who favoured a more conservative interpretation or even reversal of Vatican II's reforms. There remains a conspiracy theory (the so-called 'Siri Conspiracy') concerning allegations Siri was actually elected in the 1958 conclave, but then forced to withdraw acceptance of his election.
  • Those who favoured a more liberal interpretation of Vatican II's reforms along with some Italian cardinals who supported Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, who was opposed because of his "autocratic" tendencies.

Outside the Italians, who were experiencing diminished influence within the increasingly internationalist College of Cardinals, were figures like Cardinal Karol Wojtyła.[7] Over the days following the conclave, cardinals effectively declared that, with general great joy, they had elected "God's candidate".[7] Argentine Cardinal Eduardo Francisco Pironio stated, "We were witnesses of a moral miracle."[7] And later, Mother Teresa commented, "He has been the greatest gift of God, a sunray of God's love shining in the darkness of the world."[7]

The leader of the delegation from the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov) of Leningrad, collapsed and died after the ceremony. The new Pope prayed over him.[9]

Church policies

Papal styles of
Pope John Paul I
Reference style His Holiness
Spoken style Your Holiness
Religious style Holy Father
Posthumous style Servant of God

Humanising the papacy

After his election, John Paul I quickly made several decisions that would "humanise" the office of pope, admitting publicly he had turned scarlet when Paul VI had named him the Patriarch of Venice. 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 traditionalist aides, who reinstated the royal we in press releases and in L'Osservatore Romano. He was the first to refuse the sedia gestatoria until Vatican pressure convinced him of its need in order to allow the faithful to see him. He was the last pope to use the sedia gestatoria; subsequently, his successors refused to use it.

He was the first pope to choose an "investiture" to commence his papacy rather than the traditional Papal Coronation.

One of his remarks, reported in the press, was that God "is our Father; even more He is our Mother,"

Encyclical on devolution

John Paul I intended to prepare an encyclical in order to confirm the lines of the Second Vatican Council ("an extraordinary long-range historical event of growth for the Church," he said) and to enforce the Church's discipline in the life of priests and the faithful. In discipline, he was a reformist, instead, and was the author of initiatives such as the devolution of one percent of each church's entries for the poor churches in the Third World. The visit of Jorge Rafael Videla, president of the Argentine junta, to the Vatican caused considerable controversy, especially when the Pope reminded Videla about human rights violations taking place in Argentina during the Dirty War.

Moral theology

The moral theology of John Paul I had been openly debated because of his opinions expressed on a number of issues, particularly birth control. It is certain that John Paul I would not have reversed Paul VI's teaching, namely on contraception, since it was a question of sexual ethics and Church doctrine, rather than one of personal opinion. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that John Paul I would not have insisted upon the negative judgment in Humanae Vitae as aggressively and publicly as John Paul II did. Some take a different view, describing that while serving as Patriarch of Venice, "Luciani was intransigent with his upholding of the teaching of the Church and severe with those, who through intellectual pride and disobedience paid no attention to the Church's prohibition of contraception," though while not condoning the sin, he was patient with those who sincerely tried and failed to live up to the Church's teaching."[1]


John Paul was regarded as a skilled communicator and writer, and has left behind some writings. His book Illustrissimi, written while he was a Cardinal, is a series of letters to a wide collection of historical and fictional persons. Among those still available are his letters to Jesus,[12] King David,[13] Figaro the Barber,[14] Empress Maria Theresa[15] and Pinocchio.[16] Others 'written to' included Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Christopher Marlowe.

John Paul I impressed people with his personal warmth. There are reports that within the Vatican he was seen as an intellectual lightweight not up to the responsibilities of the papacy, although David Yallop (In God's Name) says that this is the result of a whispering campaign by people in the Vatican who were opposed to Luciani's policies. In the words of John Cornwell, "they treated him with condescension"; one senior cleric discussing Luciani said "they have elected Peter Sellers."[17] Critics contrasted his sermons mentioning Pinocchio to the learned intellectual discourses of Pius XII or Paul VI. Visitors spoke of his isolation and loneliness and the fact that he was the first pope in decades not to have previously held either a diplomatic role (like Pius XI and John XXIII) or Curial role (like Pius XII and Paul VI) in the Church.

His personal impact, however, was twofold: his image as a warm, gentle and kind man captivated the whole world. This image was immediately formed when he was presented to the crowd in St. Peter's Square following his election. The warmth of his presence made him a much-loved figure before he even spoke a word. The media in particular fell under his spell. He was a skilled orator. Whereas Pope Paul VI spoke as if delivering a doctoral thesis, John Paul I produced warmth, laughter, a 'feel-good factor,' and plenty of media-friendly sound bites.

According to his aides, he was not the naive idealist his critics made him out to be. Cardinal Giuseppe Caprio, the substitute Papal Secretary of State, said that John Paul quickly accepted his new role and performed it with confidence.[18]

John Paul admitted that the prospect of the papacy had daunted him to the point that other cardinals had to encourage him to accept it. He refused to have the millennium-old traditional Papal Coronation and wear the Papal Tiara.[19] He instead chose to have a simplified Papal Inauguration Mass. John Paul I used as his motto Humilitas. In his notable Angelus of 27 August 1978 (delivered on the first full day of his papacy), he impressed the world with his natural friendliness.[20]

Abrupt death

John Paul I was found dead sitting up in his bed shortly before dawn on 28 September 1978,[21] just 33 days into his papacy. The Vatican reported that the 65-year-old pope most likely died the previous night of a heart attack. It has been claimed that the Vatican had altered some of the details of the discovery of the death to avoid possible unseemliness[22][23] in that he was discovered by Sister Vincenza Taffarel, who was a nun.[24] Inconsistent statements were made relating to who found John Paul I's body, the time when he was found, and what papers were in his hand. These various issues led to a number of conspiracy theories concerning his death. The Vatican has not investigated the claims and does not believe in any possible foul play.


Pope John Paul I was the first pope to abandon the Papal Coronation, and he was also the first Pope to choose a double name (John Paul) for his papal name. His successor, Cardinal Karol Jozef Wojtyła, chose the same name. He was the first Pope to have a Papal Inauguration and the last pope to use the sedia gestatoria.

Initiation of canonisation process

The process of canonisation for John Paul I formally began in 1990 with the petition by 226 Brazilian bishops, including four cardinals.

On 26 August 2002, Bishop Vincenzo Savio announced the start of the preliminary phase to collect documents and testimonies necessary to start the process of canonisation. On 8 June 2003 the Congregation for the Causes of Saints gave its assent to the work. On 23 November, the process formally opened in the Cathedral Basilica of Belluno with Cardinal José Saraiva Martins in charge.[25][26]

The Diocesan inquiry subsequently concluded on 11 November 2006 at Belluno. In June 2009, the Vatican began the "Roman" phase of the beatification process for John Paul I, drawing upon the testimony of Giuseppe Denora di Altamura who claimed to have been cured of cancer. An official investigation into the alleged miracle is now under way.[27] For Luciani to be beatified, the investigators have to certify at least one miracle. For canonisation there must be a second miracle, though the reigning pope may waive these requirements altogether, as is often done in the case of beatified popes.[28]

John Paul II on his predecessor

Cardinal Karol Wojtyła was elected John Paul I's successor as Pope on Monday, 16 October 1978. The next day he celebrated Mass together with the College of Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel. After the Mass, he delivered his first Urbi et Orbi (a traditional blessing) message, broadcast worldwide via radio. In it he pledged fidelity to the Second Vatican Council and paid tribute to his predecessor:[29]

"What can we say of John Paul I? It seems to us that only yesterday he emerged from this assembly of ours to put on the papal robes—not a light weight. But what warmth of charity, nay, what 'an abundant outpouring of love'—which came forth from him in the few days of his ministry and which in his last Sunday address before the Angelus he desired should come upon the world. This is also confirmed by his wise instructions to the faithful who were present at his public audiences on faith, hope and love."


  • In 2006, the Italian Public Broadcasting Service, RAI, produced a television miniseries about the life of John Paul I, called Papa Luciani: Il sorriso di Dio (literally, "Pope Luciani: The smile of God"). It stars Italian comedian Neri Marcorè in the titular role.

In popular culture

See also

Further reading

  • Cornwall, John (1989). A Thief in the Night: the Death of Pope John Paul I. London: Viking. ISBN 0-670-82387-2
  • Gurwin, Larry (1983). The Calvi Affair: Death of a Banker. London: Pan Books, 1984, cop. 1983. xiii, 251 p. + [8] p. of b&w photos. ISBN 0-330-28540-8; alternative ISBN on back cover, 0-330-28338-3
  • Hebblewaite, Peter (1978). The Year of Three Popes. First United States ed. Cleveland, Ohio: W. Collins, 1979, cop. 1978. ix, 220 p. ISBN 0-529-05652-6
  • Manhattan, Avro (1985). Murder in the Vatican: American, Russian, and Papal Plots. First ed. Springfield, Mo.: Ozark Books. 274 p. Without ISBN


External links

  • The website of the Foundation Papa Luciani
  • John Paul I in the Vatican's site
  • Religion: How Pope John Paul I Won – TIME Magazine
  • John Paul I on EWTN Speech on "Church Discipline, Evangelization, Ecumenism, Peace"
  • Tomb of John Paul I – Vatican Grottoes
  • An interview with 8 April 2005. -RealPlayer required.
Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Giuseppe Carraro
Bishop of Vittorio-Veneto
27 December 1958 – 15 December 1969
Succeeded by
Antonio Cunial
Preceded by
Giovanni Urbani
Patriarch of Venice
15 December 1969 – 16 August 1978
Succeeded by
Marco Cé
Preceded by
Paul VI
26 August – 28 September 1978
Succeeded by
John Paul II

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