VATICAN CITY — As the sainthood cause of Blessed John Paul I reached a major milestone with his beatification at the Vatican in early September, promoters and supporters of his cause hope his legacy continues to get the attention it deserves.
His brief pontificate did not do justice to a man who excelled as a gifted catechist, communicator and shepherd in his 23 years as a priest in the Italian Alps, 12 years as bishop in the pre-Alpine hills and eight years as patriarch of Venice, said Stefania Falasca, vice postulator of his cause.
Known as “the smiling pope,” “the humble pope,” and “the pope who talked to children,” Blessed John Paul’s 34 days as pontiff are just the tip of the iceberg, she said. She and others spoke at a Vatican news conference ahead of his Sept. 4 beatification.
His sainthood cause brought together so many pieces of evidence, background and direct testimonies regarding his 43 years of ordained ministry that they have finally been able to build a complete “reconstruction” of this figure, who was beatified for his lifetime of holiness, not his few weeks as pope, Falasca said.
He could have been “a dock worker” or a “garbage collector,” she said. His holiness depended not on his job, but on always living and communicating “the essence of the Gospel” and doing it in an extraordinary way.
“For me, he was one of the greatest, most gifted popes of the 1900s,” she said.
Cardinal Beniamino Stella, postulator of Blessed John Paul’s cause, said the 19 years of meticulous historical research needed for the cause allowed for an official and “the first complete biography” of his life, published this year, “I Am the Dust.” The title comes from a favorite saying of the blessed, reflecting the way he saw himself as an instrument of God.
Stella said at the news conference he cherished his memories of Blessed John Paul, who was his bishop when he was a young seminarian and priest for the Diocese of Vittorio Veneto.
Blessed John Paul’s holiness “is important for the church and for the world today because it is through his example we are called back to the heart of Christian life, to the humility and goodness of a person who can see a sinner in need of mercy and who wants to serve” others, said the cardinal.
The official biography joins a growing collection of newly published works that are seeking to make these collected materials, especially those never-before-published, more accessible to the general public. Even the Vatican website has all of his papal talks translated into English, Spanish and other languages: a true rarity for papal remarks before 1996.
One book, “Giocare con Dio: Catechesi senza mitria” (“Playing with God: Catechesis Without the Miter”), is a collection of very short imaginative stories, anecdotes and allegories written by Blessed John Paul to spark reflection and lessons about life and faith, a creative flair for which he was famous.
One allegory, titled “Why, Mommy?” details a back-and-forth conversation between a busy mother and her young child, who asks, “Mommy, why don’t you want to play with me?” “Because I don’t have time.” “Why don’t you have time?” “Because I am working!” “And why are you working?” “Because I have to earn money!” “And why do you have to earn money?” “So I can feed you!” “But mommy, I’m not hungry!”
Elected Aug. 26, 1978, Blessed John Paul brought the quick quips and a storytelling form of preaching with him to Rome as pope, making an immediate impact on and heartfelt connection with his listeners.
He never picked up the papal tiara and he finally dropped the “royal We,” speaking directly in the first person with the endearing air of chatting with a friend. At his first Angelus address, he began simply, “Yesterday morning I went to the Sistine Chapel to vote tranquilly. Never could I have imagined what was about to happen!”
It wasn’t just the everyday Catholic who was touched by his familiarity, gentleness and deep love for God and his Gospel.
His priests, family members, fellow bishops and cardinals were all similarly struck, especially by his ability to be kind and firm and demanding, as evidenced in another new book, “Il Postino di Dio” (“God’s Mailman”), illustrating the way he saw himself as a “carrier” of God’s word to the faithful.
This book collects the testimonies of several cardinals, including retired Pope Benedict XVI, who was one of the 111 cardinals who elected Italian Cardinal Albino Luciani as Pope John Paul I.
“Personally, I am totally convinced that he was a saint, because of his great goodness, simplicity, humanity and courage,” then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said in an interview in 2003.
“Let us treasure his example, committing ourselves to cultivating the same kind of humility that made him able to speak to everyone,” Pope Benedict said at his Angelus Sept. 28, 2008, the 30th anniversary of his predecessor’s death.
Beatifying him in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis said, “Let us pray to him, our father and our brother, and ask him to obtain for us ‘the smile of the soul'” that is “transparent, that does not deceive.”
“Let us pray, in his own words, ‘Lord take me as I am, with my defects, with my shortcomings, but make me become what you want me to be.'”