“The Paradox of Albino Luciani: Meekness and Strength”
Address by Mo Guernon at the International Conference for the Centenary of Pope John Paul I — New York City / October 13, 2012
There is a dwindling global community that shares an uncommon bond: devotion to the memory of Albino Luciani, a man who inspired the world with his simplicity, his humility, his radiant smile, and his unfailing wisdom during his tragically brief 33-day pontificate in 1978.
This October 17 marks the centenary of his birth, a fitting day of celebration and remembrance. The hearts of those who loved him overflow with gratitude for Albino Luciani’s illustrious life while still healing from the sting of his premature death.
We, who were his devoted flock, have joyfully assumed an inviolate trust: to ensure that the light of Albino Luciani’s exemplary life is never dimmed nor extinguished. Those of us in whose memories he still lives, have a solemn responsibility to tell the authentic story of this simple yet ironically complex man. For the saintly life of Albino Luciani can and should serve as an everlasting beacon of hope for countless generations who never knew him. The spiritually destitute world we inhabit today desperately yearns for his enlightening example to guide it through these morally perilous times.
When I encounter those precious few people who still remember Pope John Paul I, they inevitably recall either his beaming smile or his sudden death. But there is so much more that they deserve and need to know about one of the most remarkable and fascinating figures of the 20th century.
While Pope Luciani was globally admired for his meekness, he was far from being a one-dimensional figure. To perceive him in simplistic terms, therefore, is to misunderstand the very essence of who he was.
It is nearly always a grave error to mistake meekness for weakness. And that is precisely the misperception that many of Luciani’s contemporaries formed throughout his distinguished career of service to the Church. For instance, American Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, capo of the Vatican bank, who had clashed with Luciani years before he became pope, was reportedly fond of belittling the pontiff. “He waddles like a duck,” he allegedly mocked in the company of his curial brethren. “He is in over his head as pope,” he characteristically jeered, according to some.
How wrong he was. So were countless others entombed in the fossilized hierarchy of the Vatican bureaucracy. Some were appalled at the simplicity of Luciani’s speech, his “undignified” habit during his overflowing general audiences of calling on children to “help the Pope” illustrate a central Christian tenet, his insistence that God in some ways was more a mother than a father. Yet despite the ceaseless carping of some in the curia, Papa Luciani remained steadfastly true to God, the Gospels, and to his conscience, all the while maintaining genuine good will toward all, including his most zealous detractors.
That is courage. That is strength. That is Christianity in action.
During John Paul I’s brief papacy, the world glimpsed a common man of uncommon rectitude. “Blessed are the meek,” wrote Matthew in the Gospels. Meekness is synonymous with humility; it denotes gentleness as well as fortitude to endure tribulations with patience and forgiveness. To be sure, Papa Luciani cultivated and possessed this virtue in abundance. Indeed, his episcopal motto itself was “Humilitas”. But many of his subordinates imprudently equated that with frailty and timidity, and in so doing they profoundly underestimated the pope’s endurance and determination to lead the Church according to the wisdom of the Word.
Good Pope John XXIII, also universally recognized for his humility, knew better. He once wrote tellingly, “…in the Gospel Jesus teaches us to be gentle and humble; naturally, this is not the same thing as being weak…” He proved the veracity of that declaration by boldly summoning the Second Vatican Council that fundamentally reformed the Catholic Church in the modern world.
So, make no mistake: Albino Luciani was a man of unshakeable faith who consistently demonstrated strength of character and fidelity to Christian ideals while recognizing unashamedly that, in his words, “we must all feel small before God.”
It is worth noting that not all observers rushed to judge him a malleable figure. Following Luciani’s swift and surprising election as Pope in one of the shortest conclaves in history, Newsweek magazine presciently observed, “there seemed to be some steel behind John Paul’s ready smile.”
Indeed there was.
Luciani’s mettle (if not his sagacity) was evident even in a youthful incident in his home village of Canale d’Agordo when he once dared call one of his teachers a thief for failing to return a book that she had borrowed from him. (Books, after all, were one of his few prized possessions, even as a youngster!)
Much later as rector of the Seminario Gregoriano in Belluno, Luciani insisted on strict obedience to the rules, yet his seminarians described him fondly without exception as patient, caring, kind, and understanding. When one seminarian called on the rector, he was startled at the frosty temperature of his room. Luciani insisted on living in the same uncomfortable conditions as his seminarians. He was loved for his gentle counsel and unfailing availability to his seminarians, an endearing practice he would later maintain as bishop and cardinal.
That Luciani was widely admired for his humility is indisputable and entirely justified. He ate meager meals, eschewed the trappings of status and power, readily gave away his money to the needy, even referred to himself repeatedly as “a little man accustomed to silence.”
Don Giacomo Ferrighetto recalled an episode that illuminated Luciani’s affection for the lowly who labored in the service of others. “When he was a guest for a meal anywhere, he always went personally to the kitchen to thank all those who had prepared the food. This custom caused, at the beginning, not a little perplexity amongst the house-women and the cooks who were suddenly in front of ‘His Excellency”, the Bishop, when they still had their aprons on and their hands were wet.”
What a powerful and lasting impact such simplicity and sweetness of character must have had on the beneficiaries of such generous gestures.
Upon becoming a bishop, Luciani once delivered a memorable sermon that struck the same note as the one he sounded upon becoming pope. Rather than feeling exalted as a church leader, he accepted the unsought assignment with reluctance, profound humility, and perhaps a touch of trepidation. “I am the little one of once upon a time, I am the one who comes from the fields, I am pure and simple dust; on this dust the Lord has written the episcopal dignity of the illustrious Diocese of Vittorio Veneto.”
He made a solemn promise at his installation, “…I desire only to enter into your service and to put at your disposal all my poor strength, the little I have, and the little I am.” It was a moving testament to the fact that Luciani never forgot who he was or where he had come from.
There he continued to live an ascetic life, consuming skimpy meals, riding in a clunker of an automobile, and dressing as an ordinary priest. To the poor he would empty his own pockets, and for the sick in the hospitals he habitually visited, he would surreptitiously tuck money under their pillows as he uttered words of encouragement.
In a retreat for priests while he was bishop, he preached to them, “be kind and polite with everyone, but subservient to no one.”
Luciani knew of what he spoke, for he lived that which he preached.
The diminutive man who had grown up in a tiny village dwarfed by the majesty of the towering Dolomites was far from timid, repeatedly demonstrating undaunted courage. As a seminarian, he once rushed into a burning barn to rescue a farmer’s horses. As a priest, during the Second World War, he came to the rescue of innocents who were harassed, threatened, imprisoned.
Personal peril and the forces of evil never intimated Albino Luciani.
Aside from personal bravery, Luciani was a decisive man who neither shirked his responsibilities as a Church leader nor surrendered to public pressure, no matter how widespread, no matter how intense.
When an elderly parish priest died, his parishioners, without first consulting their bishop, unilaterally decided on a successor. Luciani was convinced that a different priest was better suited to the needs of the parish; the parishioners, however, were adamantly opposed to his choice. They attempted to obstruct the appointment of the bishop’s designated successor. Luciani responded boldly by withholding the Holy Sacrament from the parishioners until the situation was resolved to his satisfaction. He confided to his sister Nina, “This is my decision. This, for me, is the right decision.”
Not a hint of weakness there. “He was likeable, but he was also firm,” his sister later confessed.
As a new bishop, Luciani also confronted a scandal involving diocesan clergy. Two priests had embezzled tens of thousands of lire of contributions from the faithful. Luciani appointed a commission to investigate the imbroglio. He demanded an honest explanation from the two clerics who confessed to wrongdoing, and he suspended them from their official responsibilities. Luciani then wrote an open letter to the faithful in his diocese, explaining the facts of the situation without exculpating the two offending priests. In fact, in that letter, he stated unequivocally, “Two of my priests have done wrong.” While he voiced compassion for his embattled clerics, Luciani allowed the judicial system to run its course without interference on their behalf.
Throughout the ordeal, he was totally transparent with his flock. Bishop Luciani committed himself to finding the money to make restitution. His means of doing so could not have been popular: he sold diocesan property and the possessions of churches while requesting an increase of contributions from parishioners.
Nevertheless, as he prepared to leave for his new assignment as Patriarch of Venice, the faithful lamented his departure while celebrating his promotion. Luciani turned over to the diocesan vicar general at Veneto his total personal savings along with the money collected by the priests of the diocese to defray the cost of his installation in Venice. “Give it to the poor,” he instructed. “I came without a penny in my pocket, and that’s the way I want to leave.”
Luciani took possession of Saint Mark’s with a paucity of pomp and fanfare, much to the disappointment and disapproval of Venetians who were fond of such extravagant displays. Luciani abandoned the tradition of the new Venetian Patriarch arriving with an entourage of gondolas in an elaborate pageant. Instead, he kept the ceremony simple and religious.
Of the multitude of invitations extended to him by those of distinction in Venice’s secular world during his years as patriarch, he responded affirmatively to a precious few: those devoted to alleviating poverty.
Luciani’s love of the poor and downtrodden is legendary. His secretary, Monsignor Mario Senigaglia, in 1983 recalled how the Patriarch responded to unexpected guests in his new home. “Within a few days of his arrival in Venice, leaving the study, Luciani noticed the great tide of people and the strange scent that had filled the waiting rooms. He asked me, ‘Who are they?’ ‘They are the poor…’ He wanted to go and greet them…about sixty or seventy in number. For each he had a smile and a word. Then he said, ‘Remember, the Patriarch’s door is always open. Ask don Mario, and what I can do for you, I will always do it with pleasure.’ ‘Excellence – I mumbled – you will ruin me: they will not leave me in peace.’ He smiled, saying, ‘Somebody will help us.’ The poor…drunkards, released prisoners, women who walked the streets, clients of the nocturnal asylums, and beggars…were his friends. For many of them we found houses and work…”
Not long after coming to Venice, he shocked some people by selling various treasures of the diocese, including a pectoral cross of great value so that he could contribute to a sanitarium for handicapped children on behalf of the Church.
Luciani’s tenure as Patriarch included periods of turbulence. He discouraged political activism by priests. He also vocally opposed the Italian Communist Party, a group that was rapidly gaining popularity among the economically desperate masses. Later, he would encounter fierce opposition from some of his own clergy who, contrary to the teachings of the Church, openly supported a referendum on divorce. Luciani’s response was to ponder the problem, pray about it, and then act resolutely. The patriarch ultimately removed a central leader of the group, leading to its ultimate dissolution.
Rather tough stuff from such a meek man.
Yet it was not without anguish that the Patriarch acted to protect what he perceived to be the best interests of the Church to which he had devoted his life. Luciani often felt isolated and misunderstood. The anger of the pro-divorce priests was so intense that they took the extraordinary move of appealing to the Vatican for Luciani’s dismissal. They accused him of not visiting his parishes often enough and not knowing how to be patriarch. Luciani responded in a disarmingly frank way. He rebutted the first accusation by insisting that he paid regular visits to parishes but humbly – and with a dose of irony — admitted, “It’s true that I don’t know how to be patriarch.”
Unmoved by these accusations, Pope Paul VI in 1972 made a public visit to Venice where Luciani played host. It led to a poignant moment that deeply embarrassed the modest head of the diocese. At Piazza San Marco, the pope unexpectedly — and prophetically — removed his stole and placed it on Luciani’s shoulders before a crowd of 20,000 ecstatic witnesses. In his first angelus, John Paul would recall the incident with a trace of lingering embarrassment.
As pope himself, Luciani moved surprisingly, swiftly, and surely to reverse certain venerated Church traditions. Mere moments after his election, he became the first pontiff to take a double name, John Paul, in honor of his two immediate predecessors.
He wasted no time in unceremoniously discarding the royal “we” customarily used by popes in their pubic discourses, preferring the more informal first person singular pronoun I. It drove some Vatican traditionalists apoplectic. John Paul I disdained the sedia gestatoria, and refused the traditional crowning, opting instead for the acceptance of the simple shepherd’s pallium at his installation. The papal crown, incidentally, has been banished ever since.
Though largely symbolic in nature, these changes were both dramatic and probably indicative of the first John Paul’s aspiration to liberate the Church from its obsession with regal spectacle and pageantry, with its ironclad secrecy, and the hubris among some of the Church’s princes. John Paul’s vision of the Church was one rooted in the Gospels: an institution founded by Christ to spread the Good News and to serve the least among us. One can only dream of the transformation this humble pontiff might ultimately have wrought on the fossilized culture of the curia had he enjoyed longevity.
Those who claimed that Luciani was out of his depth as pope, should have paid closer attention to his actions as well as to his popular public addresses during those fleeting 33 days in which he served as Vicar of Christ. They would have perceived a successor to St. Peter who spoke eloquently, extemporaneously, passionately, and confidently. For a man who had never aspired to the papacy, he seemed supremely comfortable – even joyous — in his new role. His bold actions as a bishop and cardinal should have served as a sobering warning to his detractors that, ultimately, he might well have reformed the Vatican bureaucracy and profoundly redefined the office of the papacy itself. This he would undoubtedly have accomplished in his own inimitable, understated way — through the sheer force of his convictions and his sweet, gentle, charismatic, and persuasive personality.
For in the final analysis, Albino Luciani’s humility was always his greatest strength.
Mo Guernon, Ed.M. / Biographer