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Pope John Paul I
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Pope John Paul I

Cardinals enter conclaves carefully groomed in case they are elected.]]

John Paul I, né Albino Luciani (October 17, 1912 - September 28, 1978), was elected pope on August 26 1978 and died 33 days later on 28 September 1978, after one of the shortest reigns in papal history.

Table of contents
1 Personal background
2 The first Pope John Paul
3 The Smiling Pope
4 The August 1978 Conclave
5 New Pope: New Thinking
6 Not up to the job?
7 Sudden Death: The Rumours
8 Conspiracy theories: David Yallop's book
9 John Cornwell's theory
10 The Legacy of John Paul I
11 John Paul II on his predecessor
12 Sainthood?

Personal background

Albino Luciani was born in Forno de Canale (now called Canale d'Agordo), Belluno in Italy. He was educated in the minor and major seminaries of the diocese of Belluno and ordained a priest of the Roman Catholic Church on July 7, 1935. He later received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He served as his diocese's seminary Vice-Rector from 1937 to 1947, also teaching students in the areas of dogmatic and moral theology, canon law and sacred art. In 1948 he was named pro-Vicar-General, in 1958 Vicar-General of that diocese, before being made Bishop of Vittorio Veneto in 1958 by Pope John XXIII. As bishop, he participated in all the sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). On December 15 1969 he was appointed Patriarch of Venice by Pope Paul. Pope Paul raised him to the cardinalate on March 5 1973.

The first Pope John Paul

A man who openly described himself as quiet, unassuming and modest, with a warm sense of humour, he had reached Rome accompanied by the warm affection by Venetians, but after his election was able, with a few words in his notable Angelus of August 27 (he had been elected on a Saturday, so it was just his first day as a pope), to impress the world with his natural friendliness. His style was dramatically different to his predecessor, Pope Paul VI, who though respected appeared aloof, distant and intellectual. John Paul I bore more similarities with Pope John XXIII; indeed it was his affection for both men that led him to adopt the name John Paul, the first double-barreled papal name in history.

The Smiling Pope

and the Papal Tiara. He did not wear Paul VI's jeweled mitre.]]

He was the first modern Pope to speak in addresses in the singular form, using "I" instead of "We", though his real speeches were often re-written in more formal style (with the re-instatement of the royal 'we' in press releases and in L'Osservatore Romano) by traditionalist aides ill at ease with John Paul's humble warmth and informality. He was the first Pope ever to "humanise" himself (he publicly admitted he had turned scarlet when Paul VI had named him the patriarch of Venice), the first to refuse the sedia gestatoria until Vatican pressure convinced him of its need, in order to allow the faithful to see him (Vatican officials did not mention to him that they were also embarrassed by his rather awkward flat-footed walk, which they felt "unregal" and ungainly), the first to admit that the prospect of the papacy had daunted him to the point that other Cardinals had to encourage him ("Tempestas magna est super me") to accept it. (He was reported to have told them in the Conclave, "may God forgive you for what you have done on my behalf" with the beaming smile that became his trademark.) He was also the first to refuse the pomp and ceremony of the millennium-old traditional crowning ceremony and the Papal Tiara, though whether that was to set a conscious policy for post-Vatican II popes or because he felt that he was unworthy of the Tiara and coronation is a matter that remains unresolved and is unlikely ever to be, unless an unpublished document on the issue of his inauguration, explaining his reasoning for declining a coronation, exists within the Vatican Archives. (He did strongly suggest to his aides and staff that he believed he was unfit to be pope.) John Paul I gave the Church a surprising sign and command of humility, that was also in his motto (Humilitas). Through his actions, John Paul emphasized the servant role of the Pope that is expressed in the Latin phrase Servus Servorum Dei (The Servant of the Servants of God).

The August 1978 Conclave

He was elected at the third ballot of the Papal Conclave, and this quick choice has been seen as a sign of probably rapidly achieved unanimous consensus. The reason for the selection was generally believed to be linked to the severe divisions between rival camps within the College of Cardinals: between conservatives and Curialists supporting Giuseppe Cardinal Siri, who was fiercely opposed by liberals and supporters of Vatican II; between some Vatican II supporters and some Italian cardinals supporting Giovanni Cardinal Benelli, who was passionately opposed because of his 'autocratic' tendencies; and between the dwindling band of supporters of Sergio Cardinal Pignedoli, himself 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 dwindling band within the increasingly internationalist College of Cardinals, were figures like Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, "the foreigner" whom John Paul I predicted would succeed him. (Luciani didn't call Wojtyla "the foreigner," but repeated that he had sat facing him in the Conclave. The seating plans in the Sistine Chapel for the August 1978 conclave showed that the man opposite Luciani was Wojtyla.)

Many, including the cardinals, expected a long conclave, deadlocked between the camps. Luciani was an easy compromise; a pastor more in the spirit of Vatican II than an austere intellectual, a man with little autocratic pretensions and so less unwelcome to some than Benelli (who in a double blow was on the brink of being made Secretary of State only to lose the appointment with John Paul I's death, and who came within a handful of votes of being elected pope in the October conclave, only to be overtaken by Wojtyla). And for Italian cardinals, determined not to 'lose' the papacy to a non-Italian for the first time in centuries and faced with other controversial Italian candidates, Luciani was an Italian with no baggage; no enemies created through a high profile career in the Curia, no controversial or radical statements or sermons, just a smiling gentle man, a pastor.

Who Albino Luciani wasn't was said to have been as important as who he was. Even before the conclave began, journalists covering the conclave for Vatican Radio noted increasing mention of his name, often from cardinals who barely knew him but wanted to find out more, not least 'what is the state of the man's health?' Had they known just how precarious his health was (his feet were so swollen he could not wear the shoes bought for him for the conclave) they might have looked elsewhere for Paul VI's successor. But they didn't. Hence, to his own horror and disbelief he was elected to the papacy.

The following days, Cardinals effectively (despite the prohibition of telling others about the Conclave) would have declared that with general great joy they had elected "God's candidate." Cardinal Pironio declared: "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 world."

As he himself declared, still in the famous Angelus, he had chosen this double name of "John Paul" (the first in the history of Papacy) as a thankful honour to both John XXIII, who had named him a bishop (and to whom he succeeded in Venice), and Paul VI, who named him Patriarch and a Cardinal, and whom he succeeded as pope.

New Pope: New Thinking

In theology, he was commonly considered being on a conservative side, a public defender of the Humanę Vitę, Pope Paul VI's controversial encyclical on sexual mores (though he privately had urged Pope Paul in a document, prior to the encyclical's publication, to take a different stand.) He raised considerable worry within the Vatican when he met with representatives of the United Nations to discuss the issue of overpopulation in the Third World. Some critics of Pope Paul's encyclical Humanę Vitę expressed the hope that, in view of his opinions as expressed to Pope Paul, and his in depth discussion of issues relating to the population growth in the Third World, the new pontiff would issue a new encyclical 'adapting' Humanę Vitę. However his sudden death meant that what his plans were will never be known.

Among his first papal acts he intended preparing an encyclical to confirm the lines of Vatican Council II ("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 faithful. In discipline he was a reformist, instead, and was the author of initiatives like the devolution of 1% of each church's entries in favor of the poor churches in the third world.

The behind the scenes tensions that existed among those in the Vatican aware of his original document on contraception to Pope Paul exploded when the pope expressed a certain consideration for contraception after his meeting with the United Nations delegation, resulting in a sort of censorship of his speeches on the pages of L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper.

Not up to the job?

Pope John Paul may have impressed people by his personal warmth, however within the Vatican he was seen as an 'intellectual lightweight' not up to the responsibilities of the papacy. In the words of John Cornwell, "they treated him with condescension." (One senior cleric compared Luciani to the actor Peter Sellers.)1 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 (Pius XI and John XXIII) or Curial career (Pius XII and Paul VI). Pope John Paul was accused of being unable to handle the endless supply of documentation that was sent to him by Jean Cardinal Villot, the Secretary of State. The Pope at one stage panicked and became distraught when he let a loose-leaf top-secret document sent by Villot blow from his hands and down over the side of the roof garden onto Vatican rooftops, to the horror of onlookers. (The Vatican's fire service was called to retrieve the hundreds of pages.)

Luciani himself had severe doubts as to his suitability for the papacy, predicting that his reign would be short and he would be succeeded by "the foreigner." He repeatedly asked people, concerning his election by the College of Cardinals "why did they pick me?"

Sudden Death: The Rumours

His quick death, only 33 days after his election, caused widespread shock worldwide. The Vatican raised major issues over the handling of the events surrounding his death; it lied about who found the body (it claimed it was papal secretary John Magee; in fact it was later revealed that he was found by a nun in the Papal Household, Sister Vincenza, who had brought him some coffee), lied about the time, that personal property of his (his glasses, his will, documents he was working on when he died) disappeared from his bedroom and was never found. (In fact that was shown to be untrue. His possessions are in the possession of his sister's family.) It claimed he had been reading Thomas ą Kempis's Imitation of Christ. Conflicting stories were told as to his health. It was hinted that his ill-health was due to heavy smoking; in fact he never smoked. The impact of this mis-information was shown in a headline of the Irish Independent newspaper, 'THIRTY-THREE BRAVE DAYS' conveying the image of a weak and ill man physically unable to withstand the pressures of the papacy, and who was in effect killed by it.

The pope's body was embalmed within one day of his death. If the Vatican was a part of Italy, this would have broken Italian law. Wild rumours spread about events surrounding his death: how the death of a visiting prelate during an audience with the pope some days earlier was because the prelate had drunk 'poisoned coffee' prepared for the pope; yes a death had occurred, but there was no evidence of poison. Also of how he planned to dismiss senior Vatican officials over allegations of corruption; again no evidence exists of such a plan, though he was aware of questions about the conduct of the affairs of the Vatican Bank, having clashed with the bank of their sale of a church bank in Venice some years earlier. The sudden embalming raised suspicions that it had been done to prevent a post-mortem. However the Vatican insisted that a papal post-mortem was prohibited under Vatican law. This too was later revealed to be incorrect: in 1830 a post-mortem was carried out on the remains of Pope Pius VIII. It produced evidence that suggested Pius VIII may have been poisoned.


Conspiracy theories: David Yallop's book

The discrepancies on the Vatican's account of the events surrounding John Paul I's death, its 'inaccurate' statements about who found the body, what he had been reading, when he had been found, whether a post-mortem could be carried out, produced a number of conspiracy theories, many associated with the Vatican Bank. David Yallop's controversial book In God's Name, suggested the theory that the pope was in 'potential danger' because of alleged corruption in the Istituto per le Opere Religiose (IOR, Institute of Religious Works, the Vatican's most powerful financial institution, commonly known as the Vatican Bank), freemasonry and mafia, supposing some heavy complicity by the Roman Curia. While Yallop's book did expose many of the 'inaccurate' statements issued by the Vatican in the days after John Paul's death, and received international attention (including demands from some senior churchmen for an inquiry into the death itself), its theories have not been widely accepted and were severely undermined by a subsequent book by John Cornwell. Even fiction focused on the bizarre death of the pope: the movie The Godfather Part III featured a major plotline which depicted the Vatican Bank involved in organized crime, with various intrigues resulting in the assassination of a pope openly named in the movie as 'John Paul I'. After decades of ongoing controversy, it has recently been reported that the investigation about the death of John Paul I would be reopened.

It is possible that Pope John Paul died either naturally, or as a result of an accidental overdose of medicine he took for low blood-pressure and which could if taken wrongly be fatal. Even the apparently suspicious quick embalming could have a logical explanation. The bodies of two of his immediate predecessors, Pope Pius XII and Pope Paul VI, had undergone rapid decay; in Pius's case, due to a disastrous embalming that speeded up rather than slowed down the process. (The stench of Pope Pius's rapidly decaying corpse led some of the Swiss Guards, who provided a ceremonial guard of honour during his lying in state, to vomit and faint; the body turned purple and the pope's nose broke off). Given the fact that Pope John Paul died in September during high temperatures in Rome, it was perhaps understandable that Vatican officials might have wanted to ensure a similar disaster did not occur again. The claim that papal rules prevented post-mortems could have an innocent explanation: having embalmed the pope's body to avoid rapid decay, a mythical 'rule' could have been dreamt up to justify the action. (Though it has been claimed that at one stage, close friends of the late pope to their embarrassment were ordered away from his corpse while some form of inspection, perhaps even a post-mortem occurred. If that is true, yet no 'results' were subsequently released, it would suggest that some evidence had been found that John Paul's death was not due to simply to natural causes, but due either to murder or an accidental overdose that the Vatican might not wish the public to know about.)

John Cornwell's theory

British historian and journalist John Cornwell in his book A Thief in The Night suggested a different theory to Yallop's. He suggested that Luciani was indeed in poor health, as confirmed by his niece, herself a medical doctor and many senior Vatican figures. She suggested that Luciani suffered from swollen ankles and feet (a sign of poor circulation and excessive coagulability of the blood) such that he could not wear the shoes purchased for him a the time of his election. Curiously he had not been seen by a Vatican physician or had his prescriptions filled.

Cornwell concluded that John Paul I died of a pulmonary embolism (which was consistent with Luciani's past medical history—including a retinal embolism in 1976). Cornwell suggested

Cornwell suggested that John Paul died at about 9.30 p.m., perhaps 10.00 p.m. at his desk and was found on the floor by the priest secretaries, who moved the body into the bed and placed it in what is truly an unusual position for a person who has died suddenly (sitting up, eyeglasses in place and papers in hand), with no indication whatsoever that he was experiencing a fatal attack. The rationale is that the two secretaries were trying to cover-up the fact that the pope has suffered two episodes of acute chest pain that are consistent as signs of a coming pulmonary embolism, as well as a severe coughing fit. They suggested in both cases that the doctors be summoned, but the Pope brushed them off. Cornwell claims that guilt drove them to want to make his death look sudden so that no blame would fall on them. (In addition it would be more respectful to Luciani's memory and the papacy's honour for it to be suggested that Luciani had died a dignified death sitting reading on his bed, rather than alone, crumbled in a fetal position on the ground.)

Both secretaries (one, John Magee now the Irish Catholic bishop of Cloyne) deny it—but it does have the signal advantage of explaining many of the strange circumstances (there were others than those listed) without resorting to major conspiracies. It also explains strange comments by both men; Magee talked on the night of the Pope's death to the nuns in the Papal Household about the possibility of the Pope's death that night. The other secretary spoke of the pope's back and feet still being warm when he lifted him. Given the fact that, even if he died in bed, his corpse could not possibly have been warm by the time he was found (around 5.30 a.m., by which time rigor mortis had set in, resulting in the breaking of some bones in the late pope's body (some claimed his knee, others his back) as it was forced into a suitable position for a lying-in-state), which was when the secretary suggested he had lifted the body and found body-heat. While the Vatican unofficially praised the book, others have criticised it, questioned its hypotheses and conclusions. The demand for the exhumation of the Pope's remains and the carrying out of a belated publicly acknowledged post-mortem had continued.

In addition, Vatican health-care had been notoriously poor for some of his predecessors. Pope Pius XII was 'treated' by an unqualified 'doctor' whose 'remedies' left the pope with constant hiccups and rotting teeth. (This same 'doctor' was responsible for the disastrous embalming. He also took photographs of the dying pope which he tried to sell to magazines.) Pope Paul VI's poor health care is generally agreed to have speeded his death. There is no evidence to suggest that during Pope John Paul I's 33 day reign the health care provided had been improved. Nor, given his apparent lack of heart problems (as attested to by his own doctor, which flatly contradicted the rumours that came from the Vatican in the aftermath of the pope's death) was there any apparent immediate requirement for a review of medical services. In contrast, John Paul I's successor has always had access to excellent medical services, a fact which saved his life after his assassination attempt in 1981.

The Legacy of John Paul I

Pope John Paul I was not in office long enough to make any major practical changes within the Vatican or the Roman Catholic Church (except for his abandonment of the Papal Coronation). His impact was two-fold: his image as a warm, gentle, kind man captivated the world. The media in particular fell under his spell. A writer himself, he was a skilled communicator. Whereas Pope Paul VI spoke as if he was delivering a doctoral thesis, John Paul I produced warmth, laughter, a 'feel-good factor', and plenty of sound bites. Secondly, the manner of his death raised many serious questions about the conduct of senior Vatican figures. Even those who believe that John Paul I died naturally admit the Vatican in its handling of the death behaved with at best scant regard for the truth or accuracy. For others, the suspicion remains that the 'smiling pope', who charmed the world, died in a highly suspicious manner that has yet to be explained adequately.

John Paul II on his predecessor

"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 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."


A number of campaigns have been launched for the canonization of Pope John Paul I. Miracles allegedly by him have been 'claimed.' However the process of canonization has not yet formally begun within the Vatican.

Preceded by:
Pope Paul VI
- chronological list
Succeeded by:
Pope John Paul II