The pope who captured the world with his smile


In 1978 the Italian Christian Democrat Aldo Moro was kidnapped by the fanatical communist Red Brigade and held for 54 days before being assassinated; his corpse ceremoniously, if irreverently, dumped half-way between the Christian Democrats’ and Communists’ Roman headquarters — the parties whose breach he had hoped to mend.

Paul VI and Moro had known each other since the pope’s days of Italian university ministry, and so the pontiff was more than superficially interested in the proceedings. It was widely believed that Paul VI’s public involvement and emotional investment in the failed attempts to work out a release for Moro hastened his own death.

This would not be the last time that year that the intense stress and demands of the modern papacy would prove crushingly heavy for the head that wore the triple tiara.

In the typically stifling August Roman heat, with windows barred shut, the electors chose the third archbishop of Venice of the 20th century (along with cardinals Sarto and Roncalli) to become pope, Albino Luciani. To honor both of his immediate predecessors and their work at the Second Vatican Council, he, like them, broke with tradition and employed his distinctively Venetian dialect in his own choice of a papal name, Giampaolo — John Paul. It was the first time a dual name had been chosen since Simon Peter and the first time a reigning pope had employed the use of “The First” in his regnal epithet during his own lifetime.

Italians immediately began calling John Paul I “il Papa del Sorriso,” The Smiling Pope. His ecclesiastical motto Humilitas described him perfectly, for despite my rhetorically powerful Shakespearean allusion above, John Paul chose not to allow himself to be crowned with the tiara in public. He rather sought to emphasize his intimacy and coequality with his flock. He even cast into desuetude the royal “We” in conversation and speeches, choosing instead to refer to himself in the first person so as to express his approachability and own sense of unworthiness to serve Christ. (His aides sometimes reinserted the formal pontifical “We” in official texts and press releases).

Blessed Mother Teresa highly respected John Paul’s pastoral approach and sensitivity, commenting, “He has been the greatest gift of God — a sunray of God’s love shining in the darkness of the world.”

There was little controversial about the former peasant pastor from Belluno. He was generally revered as a simple, prayerful man, with no baggage or ideological enemies. He was reported to have been shocked to be thrust into such prominence and even to have remarked to his electors, “May God forgive you for what you have done in my regard.”

Despite his affability and good intentions, his reign was too short to provide any substantial practical changes in the church. After 33 days, he suffered a myocardial infarction and died. His death has caused rumors and urban legends to spread for decades. Author John Cornwall’s book, “A Thief in the Night,” makes some highly irregular claims as to what he sees as suspicious elements in the short pontificate, medical and funereal decisions, and Vatican reporting of the tragedy. Even popular cultural icons like “The Godfather Part III” allude to a purely imagined confrontation with the vilified and supposedly nefarious Vatican Bank (IOR) and its resulting connection with the pontiff’s death.

In reality, the Office to which Papa Luciani had been called may have overwhelmed him in a purely physical sense. He was not a model of vitality even before his election. It was later reported that his legs were so swollen from irregular blood flow that he could not wear the shoes which he had arranged to have brought to the conclave. The biological strength of his heart just could not keep pace with the spiritual vigor of it.

His most lasting legacy is probably the manner in which he captivated the media and the world, no doubt a foreshadowing of the actor-turned-cardinal who was to succeed him and take the global scene by storm. John Paul I’s simplicity, which was more comfortable referring to Pinocchio than Pinochet in homilies, continues to resonate with and inspire Catholics worldwide. On the 30th anniversary of John Paul’s death, Pope Benedict XVI exhorted Christians to “cherish his example and commit ourselves to the same humility that made him able to speak to one and all, especially to the little ones and those considered outcasts.” (Angelus Message, Sept 28, 2008).


Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.