ROME – Ahead of his beatification Sunday, the late Pope John Paul I has been praised by family and those who knew him as an example of humility and holiness, and whose brief, 33-day legacy has much to offer the modern church.
Italian Cardinal Beniamino Stella, prefect emeritus of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy and the official responsible for the late pope’s cause for canonization, told journalists Friday that John Paul I’s (Albino Luciani) holiness was lived “in humility and daily dedication to church and neighbor.”
Speaking at a press conference ahead of Luciani’s beatification, Stella said he met the late pope while he was still a priest and seminarian in Vittorio Veneto, where Luciani was serving as bishop.
“I have the best memory of him: a man of assiduous and profound prayer, of attentive listening and capable of human and spiritual support, as a pastor of priests and of the people of God, learned and prepared as a teacher of the faith and a good communicator of the word of God, a friend and brother of priests, a visitor of the sick and an incomparable catechist,” he said.
Luciani, he said, embraced poverty and was someone “who felt good with the people.”
Some 44 years after his death, Luciani “testifies to us the face of a humble, hardworking, and serene church, concerned about following the Lord, far from the frequent temptation to measure the incidence and value of the Gospel by the state of opinion of the people, of society, towards itself,” he said.
Stella said Luciani’s example of holiness “is important for the church and for today’s world because through his example we are called to the heart of the Christian life: to the humility and the goodness of those who know how to recognize themselves as sinners in need of mercy, and of those who serve with generous dedication and with good works to others, announcing the joy of the Gospel.”
Born Oct. 17, 1912, in Italy’s northern Veneto region, Luciani was elected pope at the age of 65, taking the name Pope John Paul to honor both of his immediate predecessors, St. John XXIII and St. Paul VI.
Known as “the Smiling Pope,” Luciani sent shockwaves around the world when he was found dead the morning of Sept. 30, 1978, just 33 days after his election. The Vatican announced that he died of a heart attack, but his sudden and unexpected death sparked decades of speculation and conspiracy theories about what really happened during his final hours.
In 2017, around the same time Luciani’s cause for canonization was advanced by Pope Francis, Italian journalist and vice-postulator of Luciani’s cause for canonization, Stefania Falasca, published a book titled Pope Luciani, Chronicle of a Death, which laid those conspiracies to rest using various testimonies, including those of two sisters who found him dead, and documents from the Vatican Apostolic Archives.
His cause for canonization formally opened in November 2003, 25 years after his death, and was formally submitted to the Vatican in October 2016.
A year later, in November 2017, Pope Francis approved of Luciani’s heroic virtue, allowing him to be declared “venerable,” and moving him forward on the path to beatification. He will be officially beatified by Pope Francis Sunday, Sept. 4.
In 2020, Pope Francis, who has often quoted his predecessor in speeches and texts, created the “Vatican John Paul I Foundation,” and tasked it with “the promotion and dissemination of the thought, words and example of John Paul I.” Among other things, the foundation was able to recover a collection of John Paul I’s writings that was previously inaccessible.
Speaking to journalists Friday, Falasca spoke of the foundation’s work, saying a historical archive has been created about Luciani that previously didn’t exist, as it does for other popes, given his brief time in office.
Luciani, she said, was “a man, a Christian, who had a vision of what the essentials of being a Christian is.” He was also “an apostle of the church” and was someone dedicated to implementing the Second Vatican Council, she said.
Lina Petri, Luciani’s niece and a member of the Vatican John Paul I Foundation, recalled her uncle as someone who “always worked hard to help people,” and who was in constant contact with the family, often sending holy cards of saints who held special importance to them.
“He had a positivity that he never sought to condemn, he looked for what was good, he didn’t judge people. This always struck me,” Petri said.
Recalling her uncle’s election as pope, Petri said he met with family members shortly after, and told them, “be calm, I never did anything to get here. Be calm as I am calm.” Even the day after his shocking death, when the family visited his body, which was still lying on his bed, “he was calm,” she said.
Luciani was someone who maintained this sense of serenity throughout his brief papacy, she said, saying “it didn’t seem like a crushing weight of the papacy” for him, even though he felt a big responsibility.
In his remarks, Stella also described Luciani as “serene” and “always smiling, with his richness in humanity, with that meekness that was characteristic of his personality.”
“His internal serenity was incredible for me, because he was a man who had an extreme sense of responsibility before the church, as a bishop, patriarch, and then pope,” Stella said, saying that to be present for his former bishop’s beatification “is very exciting.”
“I never would have thought it, even if I always had the impression in my heart that he was a man who prayed, a priest who loved his people, a priest who loved the Eucharist and the church,” he said.
When it comes to the bishops of today, Stella said the greatest lesson Luciani can offer is “episcopal friendship.”
Luciani was someone who, as bishop, had strong relationships with other bishops in his area, Stella said. “These relations among bishops are very important.”
“A bishop must always have a bishop friend who he can go to in difficult moments, that all bishops have,” he said, and stressed the importance of prayer.
Luciani was a bishop “who prayed when he found himself in the middle of these troubles, and he was a bishop who visited priests. He was a bishop who didn’t decide right away. He thought, he reflected, consulted, put himself in front of God,” Stella said, saying this, for him, is another example of Luciani’s holiness.
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