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John Paul I
Pope Jonh Paul I 001.jpg
Papacy began 26 August 1978
Papacy ended 28 September 1978
Predecessor Paul VI
Successor John Paul II
Personal details
Birth name Albino Luciani
Born 17 October 1912(1912-10-17)
Canale d'Agordo, Italy
Died 28 September 1978 (aged 65)
Apostolic Palace, Vatican City
Other Popes named John Paul

Pope John Paul I (Latin: Ioannes Paulus PP. I, Italian: Giovanni Paolo I), born Albino Luciani, (17 October 1912 – 28 September 1978), reigned as Pope of the Catholic Church and as Sovereign of Vatican City from 26 August 1978 until his death 33 days later. His reign is among the shortest in papal history, resulting in the most recent Year of Three Popes. John Paul I was the first Pope born in the 20th century.

In Italy he is remembered with the affectionate appellatives of "Il Papa del sorriso" ("The smiling Pope") and "Il sorriso di Dio" ("God's smile").


Early years

Birthplace at Via XX Agosto

Albino Luciani was born on 17 October 1912 in Forno di Canale (now Canale d'Agordo) in Belluno, a province of the Veneto region in northern Italy. He was the son of Giovanni Luciani (1872? - 1952), a bricklayer, and Bortola Tancon (1879? - 1948). Albino was followed by two brothers, Federico (1915 - 1916) and Edoardo (1917 - 2008), and a sister, Antonia (b. 1920).

Luciani entered the minor seminary of Feltre in 1923, where his teachers found him "too lively", and later went on to the major seminary of Belluno. During his stay at Belluno, he attempted to join the Jesuits but was denied by the seminary's rector, Bishop Giosuè Cattarossi. Ordained a priest on 7 July 1935, Luciani then served as a curate in his native Forno de Canale before becoming a professor and the vice-rector of the Belluno seminary in 1937. Among the different subjects, he taught dogmatic and moral theology, canon law, and sacred art.

In 1941, Luciani began to seek a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University, which required at least one year's attendance in Rome. However, the seminary's superiors wanted him to continue teaching during his doctoral studies; the situation was resolved by a special dispensation of Pope Pius XII himself, on 27 March 1941. His thesis (The origin of the human soul according to Antonio Rosmini) largely attacked Rosmini's theology, and earned him his doctorate magna cum laude.

Stone commemorating Luciani as Patriarch of Venice

In 1947, he was named vicar general to Bishop Girolamo Bortignon, OFM Cap, of Belluno. Two years later, in 1949, he was placed in charge of diocesan catechetics.

On 15 December 1958, Luciani was appointed Bishop of Vittorio Veneto by Pope John XXIII. He received his episcopal consecration on the following 27 December from Pope John himself, with Bishops Bortignon and Gioacchino Muccin serving as co-consecrators. As a bishop, he participated in all the sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

On 15 December 1969, he was appointed Patriarch of Venice by Pope Paul VI and took possession of the archdiocese on 3 February 1970. Pope Paul created Luciani Cardinal-Priest of S. Marco in the consistory of 5 March 1973. Catholics were struck by his humility, a prime example being his embarrassment when Paul VI once removed his papal stole and put it on Patriarch Luciani. He recalls the occasion in his first Angelus thus:[1]

Pope Paul VI made me blush to the roots of my hair in the presence of 20,000 people, because he removed his stole and placed it on my shoulders. Never have I blushed so much!


August 1978 conclave

Luciani was elected on the fourth ballot of the August 1978 papal conclave. He chose the regnal name of John Paul, the first double name in the history of the papacy, explaining in his famous Angelus that he took it as a thankful honour to his two immediate predecessors: John XXIII, who had named him a bishop, and Paul VI, who had named him Patriarch of Venice and a cardinal. He was also the first (and so far only) pope to use "the first" in his regnal name. In Italy he is remembered with the affectionate appellatives of "Il Papa del Sorriso" (The Smiling Pope) and "Il Sorriso di Dio" (God's Smile).

John Paul I pictured in a coin.

Observers have suggested that his selection was linked to the rumored divisions between rival camps within the College of Cardinals:

  • Conservatives and Curialists supporting Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, who favored a more conservative interpretation or even correction of Vatican II's reforms.
  • Those who favored a more liberal interpretation of Vatican II's reforms, and some Italian cardinals supporting Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, who was opposed because of his "autocratic" tendencies.
  • The dwindling band of supporters of Cardinal Sergio Pignedoli, who was allegedly so confident that he was papabile that he went on a crash diet to fit the right size of white cassock when elected.

Outside the Italians, now themselves a lessening influence within the increasingly internationalist College of Cardinals, were figures like Karol Cardinal Wojtyła. Over the days following the conclave, cardinals effectively declared that with general great joy they had elected "God's candidate". Argentine Eduardo Francisco Cardinal Pironio stated that, "We were witnesses of a moral miracle." And later, Mother Teresa commented: "He has been the greatest gift of God, a sunray of God's love shining in the darkness of the world."

Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov) of Leningrad, who was present at his installation, collapsed and died during the ceremony, and the new Pope prayed over him in his final moments.

Church policies

Humanizing the papacy

After his election, John Paul quickly made several decisions that would "humanize" the office of pope, admitting publicly he had turned scarlet when Paul VI had named him the Patriarch of Venice. He was the first modern pope to speak in the singular form, using 'I' instead of the royal we, though the official records of his speeches were often rewritten in more formal style by traditionalist aides, who reinstated the royal we in press releases and in L'Osservatore Romano. He was the first to refuse the sedia gestatoria, until Vatican pressure convinced him of its need, in order to allow the faithful to see him.

He is also remembered for being the first to refuse the traditional papal coronation. Instead, he chose an "investiture" to commence his brief papacy. One of his remarks, reported in the press, was that we should see God not only as Father, but also as Mother. This remark reinforced the image of a pastoral pope.

Encyclical on devolution

John Paul I intended to prepare an encyclical in order to confirm the lines of the Second Vatican Council ("an extraordinary long-range historical event and of growth for the Church," he said) and to enforce the Church's discipline in the life of priests and the faithful. In discipline, he was a reformist, instead, and was the author of initiatives such as the devolution of one per cent of each church's entries for the poor churches in the Third World. The visit of Jorge Rafael Videla, president of the Argentine junta, to the Vatican caused considerable controversy, especially when the Pope reminded Videla about human rights violations taking place in Argentina during the so-called Dirty War.

Opening of the Second Session of Vatican II

Moral theology

The moral theology of John Paul I has been described by some as being very liberal, to the extent that it may have stood a chance of reversing the Church's opposition to birth control if he had lived longer. For this reason, it has been cited as a significant part of Pope John Paul I conspiracy theories.


He was regarded as a skilled communicator and writer, and has left behind some writings. His book Illustrissimi, written while he was a Cardinal, is a series of letters to a wide collection of historical and fictional persons. Among those still available are his letters to Jesus Christ,[2] the Biblical King David,[3] Figaro the Barber,[4] Marie Theresa of Austria[5] and Pinocchio.[6] Others 'written to' included Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Christopher Marlowe.

John Paul impressed people with his personal warmth. There are reports that within the Vatican he was seen as an intellectual lightweight not up to the responsibilities of the papacy, although David Yallop ("In God's Name") says that this is the result of a whispering campaign by people in the Vatican who were opposed to Luciani's policies. In the words of John Cornwell, "they treated him with condescension"; one senior cleric discussing Luciani said "they have elected Peter Sellers]."[7] Critics contrasted his sermons mentioning Pinocchio to the learned intellectual discourses of Pius XII or Paul VI. Visitors spoke of his isolation and loneliness, and the fact that he was the first pope in decades not to have had either a diplomatic role (like Pius XI and John XXIII) or Curial role (like Pius XII and Paul VI) in the Church.

His personal impact, however, was twofold: his image as a warm, gentle, kind man captivated the world. This image was immediately formed when he was presented to the crowd in St. Peter's Square following his election. The warmth of his presence made him a much-loved figure before he even spoke a word. The media in particular fell under his spell. He was a skilled orator. Whereas Pope Paul VI spoke as if delivering a doctoral thesis, John Paul I produced warmth, laughter, a 'feel good factor,' and plenty of media-friendly sound bites.

John Paul was the first pope to admit that the prospect of the papacy had daunted him to the point that other cardinals had to encourage him to accept it. He strongly suggested to his aides and staff that he believed he was unfit to be pope. Though Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Constitution Romano Pontifici Eligendo explicitly required that John Paul be crowned, he controversially refused to have the millennium-old traditional Papal Coronation and wear the Papal Tiara.[8] He instead chose to have a simplified Papal Inauguration Mass. John Paul I used as his motto Humilitas. In his notable Angelus of 27 August delivered on the first day of his papacy, he impressed the world with his natural friendliness.[1]


Tomb of John Paul I in the Vatican Grottoes

John Paul I was found dead sitting up in his bed shortly before dawn on 29 September 1978,[9] just 33 days into his papacy. The Vatican reported that the near-66-year-old Pope most likely died the previous night of a heart attack.

However, a degree of uncertainty accompanies this diagnosis since an autopsy was not performed. This uncertainty, coupled with inconsistent statements made following the Pope's death, has led to a number of conspiracy theories concerning his death. These statements concern who found the Pope's body, at what time he was found, and what papers the Pope had in his hand.

Immediately following the Pope's death, rumours began. One rumour claimed that a visiting prelate, Nikodim, had recently died from drinking "poisoned tea" prepared for the pope. The visiting prelate actually had died some days earlier and there was no evidence of any poison, but again, no autopsy was performed because Nikodim was embalmed almost immediately.

Another unsubstantiated rumour described the Pope's plans to dismiss senior Vatican officials over allegations of corruption. The suddenness of his embalming raised suspicions that it had been done to prevent an autopsy. The Vatican insisted that a papal autopsy was prohibited under Vatican law. However, one source (the diary of Agostino Chigi) reports that an autopsy was carried out on the remains of Pope Pius VIII in 1830.

Nevertheless, suspicions persist to this day, particularly given the sweeping changes to Vatican personnel this Pope had already penned, along with the Mafia-riddled Italy of the time, and the number of subsequent murders of officials investigating the Vatican Bank along with its associates.[10]


Papal Arms of John Paul I

Other than the abandonment of the Papal Coronation, John Paul I was not in office long enough to influence any major practical changes within the Vatican or the Roman Catholic Church.

The manner of his death raised many questions about the conduct of senior Vatican figures. Even among those who dismiss conspiracy theories, there are some that admit that the Vatican mishandled the circumstances of his death. For others, the suspicion remains that the 'smiling pope,' who charmed the world, died in a manner that has yet to be explained adequately.

Path towards beatification

Shortly after his death, the call came from across the Catholic world to open the process towards sainthood. However, the process only formally began in 1990 with the petition by 226 Brazilian bishops, including four cardinals.

On 26 August 2002, Bishop Vincenzo Savio announced the start of the preliminary phase to collect documents and testimonies necessary to start the process of canonization. On 8 June 2003 the Congregation for the Causes of Saints gave its assent to the work. On 23 November, the process formally opened in the Cathedral Basilica of Belluno alongside Cardinal José Saraiva Martins.

The Diocesan inquiry subsequently concluded on 11 November 2006 at Belluno with a solemn Mass. In July 2008, the Vatican pronounced in favour of beatification in due course for John Paul I, drawing upon the testimony of Giuseppe Denora di Altamura who claimed to have been cured of cancer.

John Paul II on his predecessor

Karol Józef Cardinal Wojtyła was elected to succeed John Paul I as Supreme Pontiff on Monday, 16 October 1978. The next day he celebrated Mass together with the College of Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel. After the Mass, he delivered his first Urbi et Orbi (a traditional blessing) message, broadcast worldwide via radio. In it he pledged fidelity to the Second Vatican Council and paid tribute to his predecessor:[11]

What can we say of John Paul I? It seems to us that only yesterday he emerged from this assembly of ours to put on the papal robes—not a light weight. But what warmth of charity, nay, what 'an abundant outpouring of love'—which came forth from him in the few days of his ministry and which in his last Sunday address before the Angelus he desired should come upon the world. This is also confirmed by his wise instructions to the faithful who were present at his public audiences on faith, hope and love.


  • In 2006, the Italian Public Broadcasting Service, RAI, produced a television miniseries about the life of John Paul I, called Papa Luciani: Il sorriso di Dio (literally, "Pope Luciani: God's smile"). It stars Italian comedian Neri Marcorè in the titular role.
  • The Fall's song "Hey! Luciani" is about Pope John Paul I.
  • Patti Smith's recitative song "Wave" is about Luciani, and her Wave album is dedicated to him.
  • The 1990 film The Godfather Part III included the assassination theory of Pope John Paul I, although the character's lay name differs from the actual Pope's.
  • Dan Brown's 2000 novel Angels & Demons also repeats the assassination claim, putting the blame specifically on Propaganda Du.
  • Portuguese author Luis Miguel Rocha's 2008 fiction book The Last Pope avers that John Paul I was assassinated.
  • Robert Littell's 2002 book The Company also portrays John Paul I's death as a KGB-directed assassination.


  1. 1.0 1.1 "FIRST ANGELUS ADDRESS, Pope John Paul I". Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Retrieved 2008-11-28. 
  2. Letters to Jesus Christ
  3. Letter: the Biblical King David
  4. Figaro the Barber
  5. Marie Theresa of Austria
  6. Pinocchio
  7. McCabe, Joseph, A History of the Popes Excerpts from: A History of the Popes
  8. Romano Pontifici Eligendo (1975) Paul VI's Apostolic Constitution on the election on the pontiff, Section 92.
  9. NBC Radio News announces Pope John Paul I Death (In RealAudio)
  10. See the article and list of further events after his death at The Mysterious Death of Pope John Paul I (A Treatise). Some other books about his death include "In God's Name" (David Yallop) and "Murder in the Vatican" (Lucien Gregoire) that make the case for murder; while "A Thief in the Night: Life and Death in the Vatican" (John Cornwell) argues that he died of disease, and showed clear symptoms in his last few days.
  11. "FIRST RADIOMESSAGE "URBI ET ORBI", Pope John Paul II". Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Retrieved 2008-11-28. 

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Pope John Paul I. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.