Recent news from the Vatican will be welcomed by many, especially those of us who remember him, the man known as the Smiling Pope. Pope Francis has authorized the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to promulgate the decree on a miraculous healing attributed to the intercession of Pope John Paul I. This recognition means that the way to beatification has been cleared for the late Pontiff and Pope Francis will decide on a date for the ceremony.
According to the website of the Congregation of Saints’ Causes, the miracle concerns the healing of an eleven-year-old girl in Buenos Aires who developed a severe case of acute encephalitis and uncontrollable and life-threatening brain seizures and eventually entered sceptic shock. After the doctor told the family her death was “imminent”, the local priest encouraged everyone to pray to the late Pope for his intercession.
Their prayers and those of the I.C.U. Nurses “were exclusively addressed to Pope Luciani”. A panel of experts studying the case determined that there was no scientific explanation for the complete recovery and that it could be attributed to the late pope’s intercession.
A popular Pope
The first John Paul was good humoured, humane, down to earth and beyond the temptations of temporal power. His election to the chair of Peter in August 1978 happened during the first day’s sessions, with the attainment of the 75 votes needed – two thirds of the electorate plus one vote. Such quick consensus was rare in the Vatican. When the last ballot of the final round was read aloud by the scrutineer, the cardinals burst into applause.
Luciani reportedly said, jokingly, “God will forgive you for what you have done to me.” He decided to take a double name, something that had never happened before, to indicate his pontificate’s continuity with those of John XXIII and Paul VI. In little more than one month he had gone to join them in Heaven.
As His Eminence, Albino Luciani, Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, he had been almost unknown outside Italy, but his election as Pope had changed everything. Without warning, as head of the Church and Vicar of Christ, overnight he became one of the most important men in the world with countless followers everywhere.
Beloved of the People
Even more dramatically than his election came the news of his death, a mere thirty-three days after the beginning of his reign as Pope. The entire world was shocked and shattered. To many it was no coincidence that as Christ had borne his burden for thirty-three years, so had John Paul I borne his earthly burden of the Church for exactly the same amount of time.
A few weeks as Pope were enough to make him revered and loved. He knew well how to put the loftiest theological truth into the simplest possible words, so that everybody was able to profit from what he said. Perhaps it was because his spirituality showed so clearly that multitudes of people came to hear him speak. There is surely no other explanation of the crammed Papal Audiences on Wednesdays and the crowds that literally filled St Peter’s Square for his Angelus message at midday each Sunday of his short Pontificate.
He radiated humanity and goodness. He had an endless number of funny stories, and in his public audiences one of the commonest sounds was the ripple of laughter from his enraptured listeners. No Holy Father had outwardly ever behaved so light-heartedly, and the people loved every moment of it.
Close to the Poor
For his episcopal coat of arms, he had chosen the word “humility” and he remained close to the poor and the workers. He was rigid when it came to the unscrupulous use of money to the detriment of the people, as was demonstrated by his firmness on the occasion of an economic scandal in Vittorio Veneto involving one of his priests.
In a letter written to him granting permission to enter the seminary, his father wrote: “I hope that when you become a priest, you will be on the side of the poor, because Christ was on their side” – words that Luciano would put into practice all his life.
A great communicator, he wrote an acclaimed book entitled Illustrissimi, which contains letters he wrote to the great personalities of the past with judgements on the present. On more than one occasion Luciani told his secretary that if had not become a priest he would probably have become a journalist.
What he would have achieved as Pope we will sadly never know, and it is not of course a certainty that he will be canonized. He was declared a servant of God by his successor John Paul II, on 23 November 2003, the first step on the road to sainthood.
Pope Francis confirmed his heroic virtue on 8 November 2017 and named him as venerable.
In the Catholic Church, a miracle allows someone to be beatified – to become “blessed”, but in most cases a second miracle must be registered before the candidate can be made a saint.
However, for many of us who remember him with great fondness, he is a saint already.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan