ROME – On March 13, 2013, the day Pope Francis was elected, Catholics with long memories were struck by similarities between the new pontiff and Pope John Paul I, the “Smiling Pope” of 33 days, including their strong preference for pastoral language over the technical argot of dogma, a delight to ordinary people, and a heart-warming style that immediately took the world by storm.
Now the two will be further connected, as the Vatican announced Thursday that Francis has signed the decree of heroic virtue that will bring John Paul I, “Papa Luciani” as he’ll forever be known to Italians, a step closer to sainthood.
Francis could waive the requirement of a second miracle if he chooses, as he did for St. Pope John XXIII.
Thursday’s decision also means that John Paul I is entitled to be referred to as “Venerable.”
John Paul I is often remembered as an extremely pastoral figure, using homespun language, who understood the struggles and the dreams of ordinary people and who knew how to make the teaching of the Church accessible and relevant.
Francis’s green light for the sainthood came after a review board of theologians voted in favor of recognizing the heroic virtues of the late pope back in June, and the nod of cardinals and bishops from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, who voted in favor of the decree on Tuesday.
Albino Luciani was born on Oct. 17, 1912 in Italy’s northern Veneto region. He was elected pope at the age of 65, and decided to take the name Pope John Paul to honor both of his immediate predecessors, St. John XXIII and blessed Paul VI.
He was found dead in his bed on the morning of Sept. 30, 1978. Though for decades there were many speculations surrounding his final hours, a book released on Tuesday in Italy confirms that he died of a heart attack, as the Vatican had originally announced.
To write Pope Luciani, Chronicle of a Death, Italian journalist Stefania Falasca, who also serves as vice-postulator of the late pope’s sainthood cause, had access to never before revealed documents from the Holy See and had the opportunity to speak with some of John Paul I’s closest collaborators, including one of the two nuns who found him dead.
John Paul I was declared a Servant of God by his immediate successor, Pope John Paul II, in 2003.
Among the many similarities between Francis and his predecessor is the fact that they are often misquoted, with their soundbites taken out of context, seemingly putting them at odds with Church teaching.
In Francis’s case, those who call him the “Who am I to judge?” pope often leave out his quote of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The Argentine pontiff gave a long answer to a question about a “gay lobby” in the Vatican, including: “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this in a beautiful way, saying … wait a moment, how does it say it … it says: ‘no one should marginalize these people for this, they must be integrated into society’.”
Back in 1978, right before the conclave that would elect him pope, Luciani gave an interview in which he congratulated the parents of Louise Brown, the world’s first baby conceived in a test tube. It led some to believe that he would have overturned the church’s ban on in-vitro fertilization.
However, the section of the interview that preceded the congratulations is often forgotten: “Even if the possibility of having children in vitro does not bring about disaster, it at least poses some enormous risks.”
He then gave two examples of these risks, including: “Given the hunger for money and the lack of moral scruples today, won’t there be the danger that a new industry will arise, that of ‘baby‑manufacturing,’ perhaps for those who cannot or will not contract a valid marriage? If this were to happen, wouldn’t it be a great setback instead of progress for the family and for society?”
Though his papacy was too short for John Paul I to issue major documents or encyclicals, his audiences are often remembered, and Francis has quoted him several times.
Among his most read texts, however, is a series of letters Luciani wrote between 1972 and 1975 for a monthly periodical while he was the archbishop of Venice. His imaginary correspondence with various saints (including St. Francis de Sales and St Thérèse de Lisieux), historical figures (such as the Empress Maria Teresa of Austria), authors (including Mark Twain and G.K. Chesterton) and even fictional characters (such as Pinocchio) proved so popular that they were collected into a book, Illustrissimi. Even Jesus was among the recipients of his letters.
In the past five years, Francis has declared two of his predecessors, John XXIII and John Paul II saints, and one, Paul VI, blessed.
During the audience with Italian Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Pope Francis reviewed the causes of other seven people:
- The martyrdom of Hungarian diocesan priest, Giovanni Brenner, killed in hatred of the faith December 15, 1957.
- The martyrdom of Italian Sister Leonella Sgorbati, killed in Mogadishu, Somalia, in September 17, 2006.
- The heroic virtues of Blessed Bernardo of Baden, Marchese of Baden, who was born in Germany toward the end of 1428 and died in Italy in 1458.
- The heroic virtues of Italian Father Gregorio Fioravanti, founder of the Congregation of the Franciscan Missionary Nuns of the Sacred Heart. He died in Gemona, Italy, On January 23, 1894.
- The heroic virtues of Jesuit Father Tommaso Morales Pérez from Venezuela, founder of the Secular Institutes Cruzados and Cruzadas de Santa Maria.
- The heroic virtues of layman Marcellino da Capradosso, born in Italy September 22, 1873 and died on February 26, 1999.
- The heroic virtues of Teresa Fardella, Founder of the Institute of the Poor Sisters, Daughters of Holy Crowned Mary, who was born in New York in 1867 and died in Italy on August 26, 1957.