In the summer of 1978 I was a lapsed Catholic — smug, self-absorbed, and swaggering with pride — though I was unaware that my life was adrift and my soul in peril. While watching television on August 26 of that year, I was transfixed by a compelling figure appearing on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica before a teeming flock of devout and enthusiastic pilgrims.
For reasons unfathomable to me at the time, this man with the saintly smile, shy gestures, and tremulous voice immediately captivated me. I was inexorably and inexplicably drawn to this transcendent figure of Christian charity. Though the pope’s public appearance that day was fleeting – as was his pontificate — his impact on my life has been enduring. My epiphany on that August day was not as dramatic as Saul’s on the road to Damascus, but it was indeed profound, and the memory of Pope John Paul I eventually rekindled and nourished my faith. The pope’s enduring example of humility has been a guiding light in the conduct of my own life as it has been for countless others.
Like millions of people worldwide, I was shocked and grief-stricken by Papa Luciani’s untimely death –- a personal blow as devastating as if a beloved, life-long friend or family member had unexpectedly expired.
Since his death, I’ve read and re-read his popular book Illustrissimi and eagerly consumed the writings of Saint Francis de Sales, who had influenced the pope’s thinking so profoundly. Over time I also sought out Luciani biographies, only to discover with dismay that, even to this day, there is a paucity of full-length English accounts of this saintly man’s life.
Tragically, virtually all non-Italian books devoted to Albino Luciani speculate almost exclusively about the circumstances of his death (all the while exalting the sensational rumors of foul play attendant to it). The illuminating story of his life’s journey, not his death, is the focal point of my forthcoming book.
It has been my long-held conviction that John Paul I deserves to be remembered as he truly was in life: a rare, radiant, and endearing modern embodiment of the Good News. Albino Luciani’s presence among us was so exemplary that it could — and should — continue to inspire a globe of weary and cynical people yearning for the “greater gifts” and a “more excellent way” of living.
I first seriously considered writing a celebration of Papa Luciani’s life some two dozen years ago when Janet Manus, then a New York City literary agent who had been impressed with one of my newspaper pieces, called and urged me to write a book. The timing, however, was not propitious; my wife and I were then raising three young children while I was teaching full-time and freelancing to augment my income.
Now — at long last — major impediments are vanishing and the pen relentlessly beckons me again. Like Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians, I believe that, “a wide door for effective work has opened to me.”
It would be an incalculable loss to the world if Albino Luciani’s memory were not resurrected. Present and future generations, who never before encountered John Paul I, can be spiritually ennobled by making his acquaintance through a book that captures the essence of the man. That is the labor of love to which I am now devoted.
Mo Guernon, Ed.M / Biographer