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Pope John Paul I

Pope John Paul I, Albino Luciani (October 17, 1912 - September 28, 1978), was elected pope on August 26, 1978 and died 33 days later on 28 September 1978, after one of the shortest reigns in papal history.

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Albino Luciani

Pope John Paul I on the papal throne

Albino Luciani was born in Forno de Canale (now called Canale d'Agordo[?]), Belluno[?], Italy. He was educated in the minor and major seminaries of the diocese of Belluno and ordained a priest of the Roman Catholic Church on July 7, 1935. He later received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He served as his diocese's seminary Vice-Rector from 1937 to 1947, also teaching students in the areas of dogmatic and moral theology, canon law and sacred art. In 1947 he was named Vicar-General of his diocese, before being made Bishop of Belluno in 1958 by Pope John XXIII. As bishop, he participated in all the seconds of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). On December 15, 1969 he was appointed Patriarch of Venice by Pope Paul. Pope Paul raised him to the cardinalate on March 5, 1973.

The first Pope John Paul

A man who openly described himself as quiet, unassuming and modest, with a warm sense of humour, he had reached Rome accompanied by the warm affection by Venetians, but after his election was able, with a few words in his notable Angelus of August 27 (http://www.johannes-paulus1.web-uno.org/audio/angelus.wav) (he had been elected on a Saturday, so it was just his first day as a pope), to impress the world with his natural friendliness. His style was dramatically different to his predecessor, Pope Paul VI, who though respected appeared aloof, distant and intellectual. John Paul I bore more similarities with Pope John XXIII; indeed it was his affection for both men that led him to adopt the name John Paul, the first double-barreled papal name in history.

The Smiling Pope

Pope John Paul I's inauguration in September 1978
John Paul was the first pope to
abandon the millennium-old papal coronation
and the Papal Tiara.

He did wear Paul VI's jeweled mitre.

He was the first modern Pope to speak in addresses in the singular form, using "I" instead of "We", though his real speeches were often re-written in more formal style (with the re-instatement of the royal 'we' in press releases and in L'Osservatore Romano) by traditionalist aides ill at ease with John Paul's humble warmth and informality. He was the first Pope ever to "humanise" himself (he publicly admitted he had turned scarlet when Paul VI had named him the patriarch of Venice), the first to refuse the sedia gestatoria (Sedia Gestatoria, until Vatican pressure convinced him of its need, in order to allow the faithful to see him), the first to admit that the prospect of the papacy had daunted him to the point that other Cardinals had to encourage him ("Tempestas magna est super me") to accept it. (He was reported to have told them in the Conclave, "may God forgive you for what you have done on my behalf" with the beaming smile that became his trademark.) He was also the first to refuse the pomp and ceremony of the millennium-old traditional crowning ceremony and the Papal Tiara. John Paul I gave the Church a surprising sign and command of humility, that was also in his motto (Humilitas).

He was elected at the third ballot of the Papal Conclave, and this quick choice has been seen as a sign of probably rapidly achieved unanimous consensus. The following days, Cardinals effectively (despite the prohibition of telling others about the Conclave) would have declared that with general great joy they had elected "God's candidate". Cardinal Pironio declared: "We were witnesses of a moral miracle". And later, Mother Teresa of Calcutta commented: "He has been the greatest gift of God. A sunray of God's love shining in the darkness of world".

As he himself declared, still in the famous Angelus, he had chosen this double name of "John Paul" (the first in the history of Papacy) as a thankful honour to both John XXIII, who had named him a bishop (and to whom he succeeded in Venice), and Paul VI, who named him Patriarch and a Cardinal, and whom he succeeded as pope.

New Pope: New Thinking

Pope John Paul I being carried on the Sedia Gestatoria
Initially he declined to use it.
The Vatican convinced him that without it the crowds couldn't see him.

In theology, he was commonly considered being on a conservative side, a public defender of the Humanę Vitę, Pope Paul VI's controversial encyclical on sexual mores (though he privately had urged Pope Paul in a document, prior to the encyclical's publication, to take a different stand.) He raised considerable worry within the Vatican when he met with representatives of the United Nations to discuss the issue of overpopulation in the Third World. Some critics of Pope Paul's encyclical Humanę Vitę expressed the hope that, in view of his opinions as expressed to Pope Paul, and his in depth discussion of issues relating to the population growth in the Third World, the new pontiff would issue a new encyclical 'adapting' Humanę Vitę. However his sudden death meant that what his plans were will never be known.

Among his first papal acts he intended preparing an encyclical to confirm the lines of Vatican Council II ("an extraordinary long-range historical event and of growth for the Church", he said) and to enforce the Church's discipline in the life of priests and faithful. In discipline he was a reformist, instead, and was the author of some initiative like the devolution of 1% of each church's entries in favor of the poor churches in the third world.

Despite the expectations by the conservative side of Curia, the new pope soon started working for returning the Church to its spiritual mission. The behind the scenes tensions that existed among those in the Vatican aware of his original document on contraception to Pope Paul exploded when the pope expressed a certain consideration for contraception after his meeting with the United Nations delegation, resulting in a sort of censorship of his speeches on the pages of L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper.

Sudden Death: The Rumours

Pope John Paul I's papal Coat of Arms

His quick death, only 33 days after his election, caused widespread shock worldwide. The Vatican raised major issues over the handling of the events surrounding his death; it lied about who found the body (it claimed a papal secretary, in fact it was later revealed that he was found by a nun in the Papal Household who had brought him some coffee), lied about the time (in fact the Vatican had contacted embalmers thirty minutes before his body was supposedly found) personal property of his (his glasses, his will, documents he was working on when he died) disappeared from his bedroom and was never found. It claimed he had been reading Thomas A Kempis's 'Imitation of Christ' when in fact his copy was still in Venice awaiting a move (along with the rest of his possessions) to the Papal Apartments. It was claimed that he was in poor health, a claim disputed by his doctor. It was hinted that his ill-health was due to heavy smoking; in fact he never smoked. The impact of this mis-information was shown in a headline of the Irish Independent newspaper, 'THIRTY-THREE BRAVE DAYS' conveying the image of a weak and ill man physically unable to withstand the pressures of the papacy, and who was in effect killed by it. As Luciani's own doctor confirmed, it was complete fiction. Other than low blood pressure, he was in near perfect physical health, who up to one year before his death liked brisk hill-walking.

Most dramatically of all, the pope's body was embalmed within one day of his death, breaking both Italian and Vatican law. [In fact Vatican Law does not address this issue and it is common to embalm popes the day of their death. Wild rumours spread about events surrounding his death: how the death of a visiting prelate during an audience with the pope some days earlier was because the prelate had drunk 'poisoned coffee' prepared for the pope; yes a death had occurred, but there was no evidence of poison. Also of how he planned to dismiss senior Vatican officials over allegations of corruption; again no evidence exists of such a plan, though he was aware of questions about the conduct of the affairs of the Vatican Bank, having clashed with the bank of their sale of a church bank in Venice some years earlier. The sudden embalming raised suspicions that it had been done to prevent a post-mortem. However the Vatican insisted that a papal post-mortem was prohibited under Vatican law. This too was later revealed to be incorrect: in 1830 a post-mortem was carried out on the remains of Pope Pius VIII. It produced evidence that suggested Pius VIII may have been poisoned.

Pope John Paul I on the balcony of St. Peters Basilica
John Paul's warmth and smile
earned comparisons with his hero Pope John XXIII.

The discrepancies on the Vatican's account of the events surrounding John Paul I's death, its 'inaccurate' statements about who found the body, what he had been reading, when he had been found, whether a post-mortem could be carried out, produced a number of conspiracy theories, many associated with the Vatican Bank. David Yallop[?]'s controversial book "In God's Name", suggested the theory that the pope was in 'potential danger' because of alleged corruption in the Istituto per le Opere Religiose (IOR, the Vatican's most powerful financial institution, commonly known as the Vatican Bank), freemasonry and mafia, supposing some heavy complicity by the Roman Curia. While Yallop's book did expose many of the 'inaccurate' statements issued by the Vatican in the days after John Paul's death, and received international attention (including demands from some senior churchmen for an inquiry into the death itself), its theories have not been widely accepted. Even fiction focused on the bizarre death of the pope: the movie The Godfather Part III featured a major plotline which depicted the Vatican Bank involved in organized crime, with various intrigues resulting in the assassination of a pope openly named in the movie as 'John Paul I'. After decades of ongoing controversy, it has recently been reported that the investigation about the death of John Paul I would be reopened.

Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) on the Sedia Gestatoria
Unlike his hero Pope John,
John Paul chose not to be crowned.

It is more than possible that Pope John Paul died either naturally, or as a result of an accidental overdose of medicine he took for low blood-pressure and which could if taken wrongly be fatal. Even the apparently suspicious quick embalming could have a logical explanation. The bodies of two of his immediate predecessors, Pope Pius XII and Pope Paul VI, had undergone rapid decay; in Pius's case, due to a disastrous embalming that speeded up rather than slowed down the process. In the September heat, it was perhaps understandable that Vatican officials might have wanted to ensure a similar disaster did not occur again. The claim that papal rules prevented post-morta could have an innocent explanation: having embalmed the pope's body to avoid rapid decay, a mythical 'rule' could have been dreamt up to justify the action. (Though it has been claimed that at one stage, close friends of the late pope to their embarrassment were ordered away from his corpse while some form of inspection, perhaps even a post-mortem occurred. If that is true, yet no 'results' were subsequently released, it would suggest that some evidence had been found that John Paul's death was not due to simply to natural causes, but due either to murder or an accidental overdose that the Vatican might not wish the public to know about.)

John Cornwell, "A Thief in The Night" suggests a different theory. It claims that Luciani was indeed in poor health, as confirmed by his niece, herself a medical doctor. Luciani suffered from swollen ankles and feet (a sign of poor circulation and excessive coagulability of the blood) such that he could not wear the shoes purchased for him a the time of his election. Curiously he had not been seen by a Vatican physician or had his prescritpions filled.

Cornwell's concludes that John Paul I died of a Pulmonary embolism (which was consistent with Luciani's past medical history -- including a retinal embolism in 1976). Cornwell suggests that John Paul died at about 9.30pm, perhaps 10.00pm at his desk and was found on the floor by the priest secretaries, who moved the body into the bed and placed it in what is truly an unusual position for a person who has died (sitting up, eyeglasses in place and papers in hand. The rationale is that the two secretaries were tying to cover-up the fact that the pope has suffered two episodes of acute chest pain that are consistent as signs of a coming pulmonary embolism. They suggested in both cases that the doctors be summoned, but the Pope brushed them off. Cornwell claims that guilt drove them to want to make his death look sudden so that no blame would fall on them. Is this true? Both secretaries (one now an Irish Catholic bishop) deny it -- but it has does have the signal advantage of explaining many of the strange circumstances (there were others than those listed) without resorting to major conspiracies. While the Vatican unofficially praised the book, others have criticised it, questioned its hypotheses and conclusions. The demand for the exhumation of the Pope's remains and the carrying out of a belated publicly acknowledged post-mortem had continued.

In addition, Vatican health-care had been notoriously poor for some of his predecessors. Pope Pius XII was 'treated' by an unqualified 'doctor' whose 'remedies' left the pope with constant hiccups and rotting teeth. (This same 'doctor' was responsible for the disastrous embalming. He also took photographs of the dying pope which he tried to sell to magazines.) Pope Paul VI's poor health care is generally agreed to have speeded his death. There is no evidence to suggest that during Pope John Paul I's 33 day reign the health care provided had been improved. Nor, given his apparent lack of heart problems (as attested to by his own doctor, which flatly contradicted the rumours that came from the Vatican in the aftermath of the pope's death) was there any apparent immediate requirement for a review of medical services. In contrast, John Paul I's successor has always had access to excellent medical services, a fact which saved his life after his assassination attempt in 1981.

The film The Godfather III used the controversial death of John Paul I as part of its storyline, it suggesting that he was killed by the Mafia.

The Legacy of John Paul I

Pope John Paul I's tomb under St. Peter's Basilica

Pope John Paul I was not in office long enough to make any major practical changes within the Vatican or the Roman Catholic Church (except for his abandonment of the Papal Coronation. His impact was two-fold: his image as a warm, gentle, kind man captivated the world. The media in particular fell under his spell. A writer himself, he was a skilled communicator. Whereas Pope Paul VI spoke as if he was delivering a doctoral thesis, John Paul I produced warmth, laughter, a 'feel good factor', and plenty of sound bites. Secondly, the manner of his death raised many serious questions about the conduct of senior Vatican figures. Even those who believe that John Paul I died naturally admit the Vatican in its handling of the death behaved with at best scant regard for the truth or accuracy. For others, the suspicion remains that the 'smiling pope', who charmed the world, died in a highly suspicious manner that has yet to be explained adequately.

John Paul II on his predecessor

"What can we say of John Paul I? It seems to us that only yesterday he emerged from this assembly of ours to put on the papal robes--not a light weight. But what warmth of charity, nay, what "an abundant outpouring of love"--which came forth from in the few days of his ministry and which in his last Sunday address before the Angelus he desired should come upon the world. This is also confirmed by his wise instructions to the faithful who were present at his public audiences on faith, hope and love."


A number of campaigns have been launched for the canonisation of Pope John Paul I. Miracles allegedly by him have been 'claimed'. However the process of canonisation has not yet formally begun within the Vatican.

Preceded by:
Pope Paul VI
List of popesSucceeded by:
Pope John Paul II

External links

  • [1] (http://www.johnpaul1.com/) a site for his beatification
  • [2] (http://www.albino-luciani.com/) a site that contains some interesting audio files:
    • here the emotional moments just before proclamation, the Habemus Papam: [3] (http://www.johannes-paulus1.web-uno.org/audio/habemuspapam.wav) (.wav 1410kb - italian, latin)
    • and here the first blessing [4] (http://www.johannes-paulus1.web-uno.org/audio/zegen.wav)(.wav 596kb - latin)
    • here, instead, his famous Angelus [5] (http://www.johannes-paulus1.web-uno.org/audio/angelus.wav) (.wav - italian)
  • [6] (http://www.papaluciani.it/) a site by a community at his birthplace
  • webite promoting the cause of Pope John Paul I's canonisation (http://www.myhelppage2.homestead.com/glorification)

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