John Paul I (1912-1978) was pope only from August 26 to September 28, 1978, the shortest term in modern times.
The future 262nd pope of the Roman Catholic Church was born Albino Luciani in the town of Canale d'Agordo in mountainous northeastern Italy on October 17, 1912. Unlike his predecessor Paul VI who came from a well-to-do family, Luciani's parents were very poor (his mother was a scullery maid and his father was an itinerant stonemason). In fact, his younger brother Edoardo told reporters at the time of Albino's election as pope that as children they both had had to go without shoes half the year. Albino did well in school and by the fourth grade had determined that he wanted to be a priest. He began his seminary studies at Feltre, Italy, when he was 11, studied at the major seminary at Belluno, and was ordained a priest on July 7, 1935. During the summers of his student years he would return home to work in the fields.
Luciani's first assignments were to parish duties in his home area. From 1937 to 1947, however, he taught at the major seminary in Belluno, while earning a doctorate in theology at the Gregorian University in Rome with a dissertation on the controversial 19th-century Italian theologian Antonio Rosmini. From 1948 to 1952 he was in charge of religious education for the diocese of Belluno, and one of his biggest successes was publishing a popular little book called Catechisi in Briciole (Catechetical Crumbs). His next assignment was as vicar general (administrator) of the diocese of Belluno, during which time he opposed the priest-worker movement—the first of what proved to be numerous conservative stands.
In 1958 Pope John XXIII named Luciani bishop of Vittorio Veneto in northern Italy. The new bishop's first crisis was a local scandal in which two priests of his diocese had swindled tens of thousands of dollars from contributions of the laity. Luciani made restitution for the theft and laid the foundations of a fine reputation for honesty and directness. His pastoral style was to make the rounds of his parishes on a bicycle, and he downplayed the rings, jewels, and ceremonial splendor that his office could command.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) had a considerable influence on Bishop Luciani, for it forced him to develop somewhat beyond his instinctive conservatism. He was slow to accept the collegiality (greater play given to the role of bishops) that seemed to be detracting from the absolute authority of the pope, and he opposed efforts to stress the church's role in promoting social reform. He also opposed moves by German and Dutch bishops to drop celibacy as a requirement for the priesthood and to admit women as priests. Still, he stayed in contact with progressive bishops and won a reputation for being more affable than the typical staunch conservative. Another important experience came when he was appointed to Pope Paul VI's international commission that studied the possibility of changing the church's traditionally negative stand on artificial birth control. Luciani himself thought change possible, but when the pope's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae reasserted the traditional prohibitions he fell in line behind the pope's stance.
In 1969 Paul VI appointed Luciani archbishop and patriarch of Venice (an auspicious appointment, because two 20th-century popes, Pius X and John XXIII, had headed the Venetian patriarchate prior to their election). In Venice he continued his policy of simplifying the bishop's lifestyle and trying to serve the poor. He also attacked the immorality of the Venetian film festival, efforts of priests to involve themselves in politics, governmental moves to repeal Italy's strict laws on divorce, and the growing strength of the Italian Communist Party.
Luciani, now a cardinal, was elected pope in 1978, three weeks after the death of Paul VI. Most commentators considered him a good political choice: Italian, yet not identified with the Curia (the Church's administrative arm); conservative, yet possessed of good relations with liberals and leaders of third-world dioceses. The press quickly dubbed him "the smiling pope" because of his manifest joy and good nature. In appearance the new pope seemed frail. He wore his hair closely cropped, peered out from under heavy brows through rather strong glasses, and had a large broken nose. His voice tended to crack; his hands moved when he spoke; and he suffered from rheumatism. In addition, he had been operated on for gallstones and eye problems. (Since birth his health had been frail.)
The pope's intelligence, along with his warm smile, simplicity, and dedication to the poor, led many to hope for a return to the style of Pope John XXIII. Paul VI had worked tirelessly for peace and justice, yet toward the end of his pontificate he had seemed almost crushed by controversies within the Church, especially those stemming from the debates over birth control and priestly celibacy. The new pope seemed likely to continue Paul's policies, but many hoped he would seem more at ease personally and be able to show greater flexibility. His best known writings, a series of imaginary letters to famous historical figures collected under the title Illustrissimi (a literary salutation), revealed a man who loved literature and who himself could write well. When he addressed such luminaries of the past as Sir Walter Scott and Mark Twain, Luciani expressed a wideranging humanism. His letter to the English novelist Charles Dickens, for example, praised the attacks on the oppressors of the poor that Dickens' works carried. It seemed possible, even likely, therefore, that humanism, simplicity, and concern for the poor would be hallmarks of the new pope's leadership. Although Luciani ate sparingly, he smoked and enjoyed a glass of wine—traits that further humanized him and suggested a man at home in God's world.
All of this was rendered idle speculation, however, for the pope suddenly and shockingly died in his sleep on September 28, 1978, having been officially installed less than a month. Once again the cardinals had to troop to Rome for a papal election, and their choice of Karol Wojtyla, a Pole, quickly put the brief rule of John Paul I in the shade. Wojtyla took the name John Paul II in honor of his two immediate predecessors, Paul VI and John Paul I. Like them, he pledged himself to implement the reforms and teachings of the Second Vatican Council. The first impressions of people knowledgeable about Vatican affairs were that he was chosen for his conservative doctrinal stands and for his considerable experience in dealing with Communists. As he proved increasingly rigid on infra-church matters, commentators again speculated from time to time on what "the smiling Pope" might have done differently.
Further Reading on John Paul I
The best view of Pope John Paul I comes from his own book Illustrissimi: Letters from Pope John Paul I (1978). The future pope wrote to both past saints and pagans, letting their literary works stimulate his reflections on faith and life. Most of the other treatments of John Paul I either concentrate on his death or treat him as part of the Roman Catholic Church's amazing changes from the time of Pope Pius XII, through the time of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, to the pontificates of the two men who flanked him, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II. See, for example, Andrew M. Greeley, The Making of the Popes 1978 (1979) and Gordon Thomas and Max Morganwitts, Pontiff (1983). Good brief sketches of John Paul I were published by Newsweek and TIME in their editions for September 11, 1978.
Additional Biography Sources
Hebblethwaite, Peter, The year of three popes, London: Collins, 1978.
O'Mahony, T. P., The new pope: the election, the man, and the future, Dublin: Villa Books, 1978.