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Getting to know ‘the Smiling Pope’
On the facade of the village church of St. John the Baptist in Canale d’Agordo, Italy, there is a small wooden sign: “He is here: with his teaching, his example, his smile,” which St. John Paul II said Aug. 26, 1979, during a visit to the hometown of his predecessor. The Polish pope touched the hearts of the locals as he celebrated with those words Albino Luciani, elected Pope John Paul I on Aug. 26, 1978.
Not much is known or remembered about “the Smiling Pope,” as John Paul I would later be called, since his papacy ended after just 33 days. But he deserves to be better known, starting with this mountain village in the famous Alpine peaks of the Dolomites, where he was born in 1912, spent his childhood and youth, and decided to become a priest.
Next to the parish church, on the main village square, there is a museum dedicated to him. A few hundred meters away is his family home, open to the public since Aug. 2.
“Until 2008, Edoardo, Albino’s brother, and his wife, Antonietta, lived there. Even after the election of his brother as pope, they did not want to leave the house,” said Loris Serafini, director of the Papa Luciani Museum. “But when it was possible,” he said, “Edoardo welcomed those who asked to visit the house.”
As of June 27, the house is owned by the Diocese of Vittorio Veneto, the first town where Luciani served as bishop, a post to which he was appointed in 1958 by Pope St. John XXIII.
Childhood, childlike faith
In the home is the room (the only one heated in winter) where Albino was born and immediately baptized, as he was considered in danger of death. The baptism was formalized two days later in the village church, which has today become a kind of sanctuary to Papa Luciani, with an altar and bronze statue dedicated to him.
The simple appearance of the home is not very different from a hundred years ago. The village was poor, and the peasants’ lives were tiring. From 1915 to 1917, during World War I, the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies fought bitterly just a few kilometers from Canale d’Agordo.
The decisive meeting of his life, which would cement his vocation to the priesthood, was with the village parish priest, Don Filippo Carli. “Observing him, what I had seen in the seminary, abstract, ideal and distant, became concrete, real and close to me,” Father Luciani said later. Don Filippo used to urge, “Speak simply, even a child must understand!”
To enter the minor seminary of Feltre, Albino needed the permission of his father, Giovanni, who had been a migrant worker in France, Switzerland, Belgium and Argentina. To obtain it, he promised his father to remain “on the side of the poor,” even as a priest. The letter remained in the pope’s wallet until his death.
Much of his life is laid out on the two floors of the museum dedicated to him through documents, video clips and his personal belongings, such as his watch, glasses and vestments. When he was elected pope, John Paul I commented on how his election had unleashed the hunt for such relics. Noting that someone had retrieved his report cards, he acknowledged once not to pay attention to his conduct at school — as a boy, he enjoyed drawing caricatures of teachers, especially in math. He was not a bad student, but admitted “Nobody came to tell me, ‘You are going to be pope!’ I would have studied more. I would have gotten ready.”
“What strikes visitors about Pope Luciani is above all the humility of the origins, his ability to empathize with the life of simple people,” Serafini said. “Visitors are attracted by his human kindness, his human energy, his honesty, that he lived authority as a service, not as a power.”
Also included in the collection are several vestments from his time as priest, bishop and pope. Pope John Paul I spoke of what he wore as pope, saying, “When I speak to God and Mary alone … the miter, the skullcap, the ring disappear; I … abandon myself to the spontaneous tenderness of a child in front of mom and dad.”
Many remember his words, “God is daddy; even more, he is a mother,” which are written on a sign along the road to welcome pilgrims.
A father to many
According to Serafini: “Many recognize Luciani as a father to whom to entrust their problems: They ask for his intercession for small and large graces, especially in the John the Baptist Church, under his statue, where they write their prayers in a book. Then they often come back to thank him, especially couples who couldn’t have children and come back with babies in their arms!”
Pope John Paul I was the last in a long series of Italian popes lasting more than four centuries. Many wonder what type of pope he would have been if he had not died suddenly.
“History is not made with the ‘ifs,'” Serafini said. “But we have enough elements to understand what the main orientation of the pontificate would have been, based, above all, on the six volumes of the radio message urbi et orbi [‘to the city (Rome) and the world’] on Aug. 27: inheritance of the Second Vatican Council, reviewing the Code of Canon Law, give new impetus to evangelization, strengthen ecumenical dialogue and dialogue with non-Christians and non-believers, promoting peace and social progress.”
“Luciani would have had a special attention for the poorest countries in the south of the world,” Serafini added. “In fact, at the conclave that elected him pope, he gave his vote to Lorscheider, the Brazilian cardinal of Fortaleza.”
Albino Luciani was named “venerable” on Nov. 9, 2017, meaning that the Church has recognized his heroic virtues in his cause for beatification. For Serafini, “The sanctity of John Paul I consists, above all, in being entrusted always and totally to God, despite human difficulties and limitations. He was an intelligent and talented man, but he always recognized that he was ‘dust and ash’ without God. The doors of his residence as bishop always were open, to be available to the people most in need of him. … In this way, he lived the two greatest commandments of the Gospel: love for God and love for one’s neighbor.”
Deborah Castellano Lubov writes from Rome.
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