Papal Chronicles: Pope John Paul I

The first Pope to be born in the 20th century is also the Pope who had the shortest reign in papal history. Pope John Paul I served as Pope of the Catholic Church from 26 August, 1978 to 28 September, 1978 - just 33 days.

A reluctant pope

Prior to being elected, Pope John Paul I expressed his adamant desire not to be elected. He went so far as to tell those close to him that, should he be elected to the papacy, he would decline.

Upon being elected, however, he felt an obligation to say “yes”, and to take up the papal responsibilities. On 26 August, 1978 Albino Luciani became Pope John Paul I.

The first pope with two names

Born Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I was the first Pope to select two pontifical names. He explained that his choice of names was intended to honour his immediate predecessors, Pope John XXIII and Paul VI.

According to Pope John Paul I, Pope John XXIII was responsible for his becoming bishop while Pope Paul VI for his becoming a cardinal. His choice of names was to thank them for role in his becoming Pope.

The double name wasn’t the only aspect of Pope John Paul I’s name that set him apart. He was also the first Pope to designate himself as “the first”.

Pope John Paul I’s beginnings

Born 17 October, 1912 in the Veneto region of Northern Italy, Albino Luciani was the eldest son of a bricklayer. On the day of his birth, Albino was baptised by the midwife as there were fears that he would not live to see the second day of his life.

Despite being on death’s doorstep, little Albino did pull through, and his baptism was made official two days later at the parish church.

The course of Albino’s life was forever altered when, in 1922, a Capuchin friar visited his village to preach Lenten sermons. At the age of 10, Albino found himself awestruck by the friar, and it was this encounter that led him to endeavour to become a priest.

Upon making the decision to become a priest, Albino went to his father to ask permission. His father, Giovanni, gave his consent and said: “I hope that when you become a priest you will be on the side of the workers, for Christ Himself would have been on their side.”

Young Albino entered the minor seminary at Feltre in 1923 where his teachers described the future pope as “too lively”. He then went on to the major seminary of Belluno where he attempted to join the Jesuits, but was denied by the seminary rector who was, at the time, Bishop Giosue Cattarossi.

Becoming Pope John Paul I

On 6 August, 1978, Pope Paul VI passed away. His passing concluded a 15-year reign. Following Pope Paul VI’s passing, Albino travelled to Rome to take part in the conclave to elect a new Pope.

At the time, Albino wasn’t someone many would have considered for the papacy. Albino himself was not comfortable with the idea. When he arrived in Rome for the conclave, however, a few cardinals approached him to share with him their opinion that he would make a great pope given that he was a warm and caring pastoral figure reminiscent of Pope John XXIII.

As the cardinals cast their ballots for the fourth time, Albino Luciani became the next pope.

Prior to being elected, Pope John Paul I met with Cardinal Jaime Sin of the Philippines who said to him: “You will be the new pope.”

Following Pope John Paul I’s election, when Cardinal Sin came to visit him, the new Pope is reported to have said: “You were a prophet but my reign will be a short one.” These words also proved to be prophetic in nature.

Plans and policies

After becoming Pope, John Paul I announced his “six-point plan”. His plan was to renew the Church through the introduction of the policies brought about by Vatican II; revise canon law; remind the Church of its duty to preach the Gospel; promote church unity without watering down doctrine; promote dialogue and encourage world peace and social justice.

In addition to his six-point plan, Pope John Paul I also endeavoured to humanise the papacy.

He was the first Pope to refer to himself as ‘I’, rather than the more formal ‘we’ (though his speeches and public statements were often changed in public records by aids who reinstated the royal ‘we’ in official records). He also refused to be crowned and refused to use the Sedia Gestatoria, the ceremonial “throne” of the pope. He did change his mind about the Sedia Gestoria, however, when people complained they were not able to see him in public appearances.

Pope John Paul I also broke down barriers between himself and the Catholic faithful by sharing personal anecdotes, such as the revelation of turning a deep, abashed crimson when Pope Paul VI placed a stole over his shoulder while the previous pontiff visited Venice in 1972.

A papacy cut short

In the early morning hours of 29 September, 1978, Pope John Paul I was found motionless in his bed having suffered a heart attack. According to the Vatican doctor, the late Pope was lying in his bed with a book beside him and his reading lamp on. It is estimated that he passed away at 11pm, the evening prior to his body being discovered.

A book published in 2017 titled Pope Luciani, Chronicle of a Death revealed the night before his death, Pope John Paul I had complained of chest pains but asked that his doctor not be called.

Later, at around 10pm, news reached the Pope that a group of neo-Facists had opened fire on a group of young people reading a Communist newspaper in Rome. One of the young boys had been killed in the attack while another was badly wounded.

According to one of his secretaries, John Magee, Pope John Paul I lamented that “even the young are killing each other”, before he retired to his bed with a copy of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis.

Testifying about finding the Pope who had not touched the coffee left for him in the sacristy where he drank it every morning at 5:15am, Sister Margherita Merin said “he was in bed with a slight smile”.

Following his death, Pope John Paul I was succeeded by Pope John Paul II.