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Source:
A Dictionary of Popes
Author(s):

J. N. D. Kelly,

Michael J. Walsh

John Paul I 

(26 Aug.–28 Sept. 1978)

Born on 17 Oct. 1912 at Forno di Canale (since 1964 Canale d'Agordo), an upland village near Belluno, Albino Luciani came of poor, working-class parents; his father frequently went to France or Switzerland as a migrant worker, and his family were known as outspoken socialists. After training at local seminaries and doing his military service, he was ordained priest on 7 July 1935. After doctoral studies at the Gregorian University, Rome, and service as a curate in his native parish, he became vice-rector of the seminary at Belluno in autumn 1937. For ten years he taught general subjects, being also appointed vicar-general to the bishop of Belluno. In 1949 he was put in charge of catechetics for the Belluno eucharistic congress, recording his experiences in a book Crumbs from the Catechism (Catechesi in Briciole). At this time he had a good working relationship with local communists. In Dec. 1958*John XXIII appointed him bishop of Vittorio Veneto, where he exercised a markedly pastoral, grass-roots ministry, playing a background role at Vatican Council II (1962–5), but becoming known in the Italian Conference of Bishops as an active member of its doctrinal commission. On 15 Dec. 1969, largely in response to local demand, he was named patriarch of Venice. During his nine years there he hosted five ecumenical conferences, including the meeting of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission which produced an agreed statement on authority in 1976; moved unobtrusively to the right politically, declaring publicly (at the election of June 1975) that communism was incompatible with Christianity; and published Illustrissimi, a series of whimsical but pointed letters to authors or characters in history or fiction (Pinocchio, Figaro, etc.), which revealed (among other things) a fondness for Dickens and for Mr Pickwick. He was said once to have remarked that, had he not become a priest, he might well have taken up a career as a journalist. From 1972 to 1975 he was vice-president of the Italian Conference of Bishops, and on 5 Mar. 1973 was made a cardinal priest of S. Marco. While conservative in theology and a defender of Humanae vitae (but also of the rights of conscience), he had no use for ecclesiastical display, encouraged parish priests to sell precious vessels and other church valuables for the benefit of the poor, and in 1971 proposed that the wealthy churches of the west should give one per cent of their income to the impoverished churches of the third world.

Although almost unknown outside Italy, he was elected at the fourth ballot on the first day of the conclave of Aug. 1978 following *Paul VI's death. His candidature moved into the foreground once it became clear that the majority of cardinals wanted a completely new style of pope, without connections with the curial establishment, and after the election the prevailing mood of the electors was one of unrestrained joy; the man they had chosen was ‘God's candidate’. His choice of name was said to express his desire to combine the progressive and the traditional qualities of John XXIII and Paul VI, and on 27 Aug. he announced to the cardinals (he was reading from an officially prepared text) his intention of continuing to implement Vatican Council II, at the same time preserving intact ‘the great discipline of the church in the life of priests and of the faithful’. A more spontaneous act was to hold a press conference, during which he held the thousand journalists present spellbound. Always impatient of pomp and outward trappings, and transparently humble-minded, he dispensed with the traditional papal coronation, and at his inauguration (3 Sept.) in St Peter's Square was simply invested with the pallium in token of his pastoral office. Two days afterwards Boris Nikodim, the Metropolitan of Leningrad and Novgorod, collapsed and died during an audience with Pope John Paul. Only three weeks later, about 11 p.m. on Thursday 28 Sept., the pope died of a heart attack while lying in bed reading some papers containing personal notes. His light was still on when he was found dead about 5.30 a.m. next day. Rumours of foul play, fanned by the lack of an autopsy, were later (1984) blown up into the claim that he was poisoned because he planned to clean up the Vatican Bank, demote important curial figures, and revise Humanae Vitae; but the evidence produced was a tissue of improbabilities. The first pope of demonstrably working-class origins, a man of practical common sense who captivated people with his friendly smile, it is impossible to guess what kind of policies he would have pursued had he lived.

Further Reading

Albino Luciani, Catechesis in Easy Stages (ET, London, 1949)Find This Resource

Illustrissimi (ET, London, 1978)Find This Resource

Il magistero di Albino Luciani: Scritti e discorsi, ed. A. Cattabiani (Padua, 1979)Find This Resource

AAS 70 (1978), 677–776, 797–903Find This Resource

The Times, no. 60420 (30 Sept. 1978), p. 16Find This Resource

DBI lvi. 380–86 (G. Vian)Find This Resource

Levillain ii. 857–9 (Y.-M. Hilaire)Find This Resource

NCE vii. 991–2 (T. C. O'Brien)Find This Resource

J. Cornwell, A Thief in the Night (London, 1989)Find This Resource

P. Hebblethwaite, The Year of Three Popes (London, 1978)Find This Resource

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