The John Paul that time forgot

We are marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XXIII on October 11, 1962. But we are also marking another milestone, the hundredth birthday of a man I like to call “the John Paul that time forgot.”

Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I, was born October 17, 1912, in the northern Italian village of Forno di Canale. The village was dirt poor. Albino’s mother was devout but his father, a migrant worker and Socialist political organizer, did not go to church.

Albino entered seminary at age eleven. Ordained in 1935 for the Belluno diocese, he served in local seminary and curial posts. He earned a doctorate in theology from the Gregorian University in Rome, the crown jewel of the Jesuits’ international higher-ed system.

Luciani stood about five feet tall and wore glasses. He had a quiet pastoral style and was known for smiling big and living simply. He rode a bicycle to and from appointments, liked seaweed pizza, read Mark Twain, and had a mind like a steel trap. Pope John made him bishop of Vittorio Veneto in 1958. Paul VI named him patriarch of Venice in 1969 and cardinal in 1973. Even afterward, he favored an unadorned black cassock.

At the World Synod of Bishops in 1971, Luciani proposed “the brothers’ share,” urging “more fortunate” bishops to kick back one percent of their diocesan income to cash-strapped colleagues in the developing world, not as charity but as “something that is owed.” Luciani himself sold church valuables (including jewelry that Pope John and Pope Paul had given him), donated the proceeds, and urged his clergy to do likewise. He spoke several languages and developed strong relationships with cardinals across the globe, but remained largely anonymous to the non-Italian public.

Luciani created a stir with his book Illustrissimi (“The Illustrious Ones”). The book was based around a deceptively simple rhetorical device: he wrote chatty letters to famous historical and fictional characters, ranging from Bernard of Clairvaux to Mr. Pickwick, from Christopher Marlowe to Jesus Christ. (St. Bernard actually “wrote him back.”) The letters explored moral issues in a way readily accessible to a general audience.

When Paul VI died on August 6, 1978, there was no obvious favorite in the lead-up to the conclave, as Paul himself had been in 1963, as Pius XII had been in 1939, or as Benedict XVI would be in 2005. But on the first day Luciani suddenly ran off with the election. It was one of the fastest conclaves ever.

It was also one of the shortest reigns. Elected August 26, Pope John Paul I died after only a month, somewhere in the small hours of September 28-29. He was alone in his bedroom, perusing paperwork, when apparently felled by a heart attack. Later reports suggested that in Venice he had been prone to phlebitis.

But rumors of foul play also emerged, speculating that John Paul was poisoned for investigating the Vatican bank. The rumors persist, partly because the bank really was a kind of Wild West. Earlier, the Vatican had brought in financiers Michele Sindona and Roberto Calvi as consultants on its investment portfolio. Sindona and Calvi turned out to be Mafia-connected wheeler-dealers who used Vatican cover to grease a multitude of fraudulent transactions. In the early 1980s, the mess exploded into the media.

What kind of pope would Luciani have been had he lived? John Paul liked to call himself a “poor man accustomed to small things and silence,” which did not suggest revolutionary tendencies. But he left some tantalizing clues.

He chose a startling double-barreled name, the first in history. He abruptly dumped some of the more pompous papal customs: the coronation, referring to himself by the “royal we,” and riding aloft in a portable throne during public appearances. (His aides did make him bring the throne back, insisting he was so short nobody could see him.) John Paul’s Wednesday audiences showcased his plainspoken, extemporaneous homilies. He clearly disdained material wealth. Reformist theologian Hans Kung was a pen pal.

Shortly before his election, the first baby conceived by in vitro fertilization was born in Britain. Cardinal Luciani gave an interview in which he reiterated Catholic reservations about the medical procedure, but also wished the child well and explicitly refused to condemn the parents. That balance would be difficult to imagine now. Luciani publicly backed Paul VI’s birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae, but was tepid compared to his papal successor, Karol Wojtyla, who made “The Theology of the Body” a personal trademark.

As bishop and cardinal, Luciani insisted on absolute loyalty from his priests. But he also carefully consulted them about major decisions. In Vittorio Veneto, he let priests elect their own representatives to the presbyteral council without interference, which was unusual for the time.

The record suggests a man who would not have given away the store, but who equally had little taste for absolutism, or for the “culture wars,” or for remaining hidebound. He would not have made moderate or progressive Catholics feel like they had two heads or three noses. A pope, but no czar. I wish we’d seen more.

Happy 100 to you, Papa Gianpaolo.