Pope Francis prefigured: Discovering John Paul I
By Robert Duncan
Catholic News Service
“May God forgive you for what you have done,” the newly elected pope told the cardinals who elevated him to the highest office in the Catholic Church.
Later, he recounted the critical moments of voting in the Sistine Chapel: “As soon as the danger for me had begun, the two colleagues who were beside me whispered words of encouragement.”
With such expressions and other disarming shows of informality, the new pope almost instantly earned a global reputation for humility.
Although Pope Francis made very similar remarks after his election in March, it was actually his predecessor, Pope John Paul I, who spoke these phrases in September 1978, thus introducing a new, down-to-earth style into the papacy.
Interest in Pope John Paul I, remembered for his winsome grin and death after only 33 days in office, has been rising since Pope Francis’ election. That makes “A Passionate Adventure” (Tau Cross), a newly published compilation of essays and speeches by the “smiling pope,” of both contemporary and historical relevance.
Since most of John Paul I’s writings have still not been translated into English, misconceptions are widespread about the man Time magazine called the “September Pope.”
According to Lori Pieper, the new book’s editor and translator, John Paul I “adhered to the teachings of Vatican II,” and was neither a conservative nor a progressive.
Some have argued that then-Cardinal Albino Luciani implicitly criticized Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” which condemned artificial birth control, by failing to speak in support of it.
Pieper says this is not true.
“He adhered to the moral teaching of the church and he would not have changed the church’s teaching on birth control,” she said. “He recognized how contentious it was,” yet “always defended the pope on this.”
Pieper said that John Paul I also “got a lot of flak” for saying that God was more like a mother than a father.
“During one of his first audiences, he said that ‘before God we should feel like a child before his mother,’” and on another occasion, he said that God “was like a father but even more like a mother,” Pieper said. “He went on to say that if we are sick with wickedness, if we become sick, our mother will love us all the more, and God is like that.”
“Everybody was talking about it as if he were like a feminist, like we are getting rid of a male God, but that was not his point,” Pieper said. “He did say that just as a way of saying this is the way God is more like a mother, in tenderness and mercy.”
Among the pope’s most significant actions during his short reign was his rejection of some of the “royal trappings” of office, Pieper said. “He was the first pope in something like 1,000 years who was not crowned and never wore the tiara.”
“He did his best to get away from the sedia gestatoria,” a ceremonial throne used to carry the pope in processions, she said, “and just about demolished the papal ‘We,’” a royal self-referent used in papal writings.
“His secretary in Venice had said that he thought about those things a lot and he didn’t do it on the spur of the moment,” Pieper said. “He said many, many times to his priests that people don’t want to see a priest who is rich, they don’t want to see a priest who flaunts his lifestyle.”
Pieper argues that, in these matters, the short-lived pope paved the way for his successors. Had the first non-Italian pope in 500 years, Blessed John Paul II from Poland, been the first to depart from such traditions, “it wouldn’t have gone over so well,” she said.
Pope Francis clearly shares much with John Paul I, including a strong devotion to Mary, especially Our Lady of Fatima; an emphasis on the mercy and tenderness of God; and a marked concern for the poor and marginalized. Not least among their similarities, Pieper argues, is their common method of evangelization.
“I think he would agree with Pope Francis” that the world should not just hear the church saying a “no,” Pieper said. “He had a sense that what the church really needs to present of herself is the very best.”