October 17 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Albino Luciani, the man who would become John Paul I, the "Smiling Pope" of just 33 days in 1978. On the day of the anniversary, an official positio, or "position paper," was filed in the Vatican to support his sainthood cause, writes John Allen in NCR Online.
John Paul I's 33-day papacy was the 10th shortest of all time, and the briefest since Leo XI's in the early 17th century. Yet the ferment shows he only needed a month to leave a deep mark on the Catholic imagination.
In part, that's because he seemed exactly what most Catholics pray their leaders will be: warm, compassionate, genuinely happy to be with ordinary people, a man of obvious faith who didn't wear his piety on his sleeve or take himself too seriously.
He pioneered the simplification of the papacy by dropping the royal "we," declining coronation with the papal tiara and discontinuing use of the sedia gestatoria, or portable throne.
In part, too, fascination with John Paul I endures because he's the great counter-factual of recent Catholic history: "What might have been had he lived?" His papacy is for Catholics what the Kennedy administration has always been for Americans, a sort of Rorschach test allowing people to project their own hopes and dreams.
One value of the events marking the centenary, therefore, is that they can help recover the "real" John Paul I, as opposed to misconceptions and hypothetical reconstructions that have flowered over the last 35 years.
In particular, the remembrances we've heard during the last month seem to debunk four persistent myths:
- The "smiling pope" was good-hearted but weak, out of his depth in the Machiavellian environment of the Vatican.
- John Paul I was a closet radical who would have taken the church in a dramatically different direction than the two popes who followed him.
- John Paul I did not die of natural causes, but rather fell victim to a complex assassination plot.
- Although a breath of fresh air after the dour final years of Pope Paul VI, John Paul I's reign was too short to have anything substantive to offer the church of the 21st century, especially with regard to its top internal priority, new evangelisation.
FULL STORY Debunking four myths about John Paul I (NCR)