ROME – Pope Francis on Sunday beatified Pope John Paul I, calling his predecessor — to whom Francis himself has been compared — an example of joyful service and humble detachment from worldly temptations such as power and influence.
Speaking to faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica for the Sept. 4 beatification Mass, which took place on a stormy Sunday in Rome, Francis said John Paul I, whose given name was Albino Luciani, lived “in the joy of the Gospel, without compromises, loving to the very end.”
“He embodied the poverty of the disciple, which is not only detachment from material goods, but also victory over the temptation to put oneself at the center, to seek one’s own glory,” Francis said.
John Paul I chose to follow the example of Jesus, Francis said, and “was a meek and humble pastor. He thought of himself as dust on which God deigned to write.” Quoting one of John Paul’s writings, Francis said, “The Lord recommended it so much: be humble. Even if you have done great things, say: ‘We are useless servants.’”
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 tried to lay such speculation to rest using various testimonies, including those of two nuns 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 Luciani’s heroic virtue, allowing him to be declared “venerable.”
He was beatified by Pope Francis Sunday, receiving the titled “blessed,” which is just one step from canonization and sainthood.
After reciting the opening prayers of the Mass, the pope presided over the rite of beatification, formally declaring John Paul I a “Blessed.” A portion of autographed writing was presented to Francis as a relic of the late pontiff.
In his homily, Pope Francis focused on the demanding nature of choosing to follow Jesus, who told his disciples that “whoever does not love him more than his or her own family, whoever does not carry the cross, whoever remains attached to earthly goods, cannot be his disciple.”
People found Jesus’ words compelling and they were drawn to follow him, Francis said, noting that many charismatic leaders rise up at times of personal or societal crisis and prey on peoples’ emotions, especially their anger or fears for the future.
When this happens, he said, “We become more susceptible and thus, on the tide of emotion, we look to those who can shrewdly take advantage of the situation, profiting from society’s fears and promising to be the ‘savior’ who can solve all its problems, whereas in reality they are looking for wider approval and for greater power.”
Jesus’ way is different, he said, saying “he does not exploit our needs or use our vulnerability for his own aggrandizement,” and nor does he seduce crowds with “deceptive promises or to distribute cheap favors.”
Pope Francis cautioned against following Jesus for superficial reasons, such as power or the desire to see miracles, saying a seemingly “perfect religious exterior can serve to hide the mere satisfaction of one’s own needs, the quest of personal prestige, the desire for a certain social status or to keep things under control, the thirst for power and privilege, the desire for recognition and so on.”
To follow Jesus, he said, means shouldering one’s burdens and those of others, “making one’s life a gift, spending it in imitation of his own generous and merciful love for us.”
In order to do this, faithful must look to Jesus and imitate his “love that bestows itself to the very end, without measure and without limits.”
Quoting a 1978 Angelus address by John Paul I, Francis said, “we are the objects of undying love on the part of God,” which never sinks or dims, but which “constantly shines upon us and illumines even our darkest nights.”
Pope Francis closed his homily praising the example of John Paul I, who he said managed to convey God’s goodness “with a smile.”
“How beautiful is a church with a happy, serene and smiling face, that never closes doors, never hardens hearts, never complains or harbors resentment, does not grow angry or impatient, does not look dour or suffer nostalgia for the past,” he said.
Francis urged faithful to pray to John Paul I to obtain “the smile of the soul,” and asked them to echo John Paul’s prayer for God to “take me as I am, with my defects, with my shortcomings, but make me become what you want me to be.”
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