Pope John Paul I: What might have been?

John paul I

His death after just 33 days in office shocked the world. His papacy was one of the shortest of all time, but he left its mark on the Catholic imagination. How might history have been different if Pope John Paul I had lived?

- By John Allen

To mark the centenary of the birth of Albino Luciani - the man who became Pope John Paul I - Fr Diego Lorenzi, who served as his priest secretary, was interviewed by by Italy's Sat2000.

John Paul I's 33-day papacy was the 10th shortest of all time, and the briefest since Leo XI's in the early 17th century. Yet the ferment shows he needed only a month to leave a deep mark on the Catholic imagination.

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.

He pioneered the simplification of the papacy by dropping the royal 'we,' declining coronation with the papal tiara, and discontinuing use of the sedia gestatoria, or portable throne.

In part, too, fascination with John Paul I endures because he's the great counter-factual of recent Catholic history: 'What might have been had he lived?'

Persistent myths have developed about the nature of the man, namely:

The 'Smiling Pope' was good-hearted but weak, out of his depth in the Machiavellian Vatican; he was a closet radical who would have taken the Church in a dramatically different direction; he did not die of natural causes, but rather fell victim to a complex assassination plot; his reign was too short to have anything substantive to offer.

Firstly, Lorenzi dismissed perceptions that John Paul I was a wide-eyed naïf, a country pastor crushed by the magnitude of the papacy and the Byzantine intricacies of the Vatican. For example, when some priests in Venice openly backed the liberalization of divorce in defiance of Church teaching, Luciani disbanded the group and suspended the priests. Rather tough stuff from a 'meek man.'

Secondly, John Paul I was no radical. British researcher Paul Spackman described him instead as a man of 'doctrinal rigour leavened by pastoral and social open-mindednes,' and said he left behind a 'legacy of gentle and compassionate bridge-building.'

Thirdly, Lorenzi rejected suggestions that John Paul I was the victim of foul play. He believes the Pope died of a heart attack, a conviction based partly on the fact that he had complained of chest pains at dinner the night before.

They didn't summon the doctor, Lorenzi said, because at the time, the Pope said the pains were passing.

Lorenzi added that the initial Vatican statement announcing the death of the Pope probably could have short-circuited much of the speculation by including those details, but said everyone involved felt under tremendous pressure to get it finished.

As for his style and impact on the Church - his approach was neither the swashbuckling bravado of John Paul II, nor the professorial precision of Benedict XVI. Instead, John Paul I had a breezy, mild, informal style, one arguably well-suited to the inductive and personalistic temperament of the post-modern era.

Full article: Debunking four myths about John Paul I, the 'Smiling Pope' (National Catholic Reporter)


John Paul I Election and First Blessing (YouTube)

Cause for Canonization of John Paul I goes forward (Rome Reports)

34 yrs have passed since the election of John Paul I, one of the shortest papacies in history (Rome Reports/YouTube)

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