Pope John Paul I (Albino Luciani) - in Canale d'Agordo (Copyright: Deborah Castellano Lubov)

The Unpublished Albino Luciani – Pope John Paul I, ‘the Smiling Pope’  (Part I)

Interview with Marco Roncalli, John Paul I’s Biographer

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This past Monday, Aug. 26, marked the anniversary of the election of Pope John Paul I, ‘the Smiling Pope,’ who lived for only 33 days following his election. Given not many remember him well, ZENIT brings you this two-part interview from our archives, to help our readers re-familiarize with him. Part II will be published Monday:


ROME, AUGUST 20, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Interview with Marco Roncalli, author of the first, complete, critical biography of John Paul I, on the occasion of the 34th anniversary of his election as Pontiff (August 26), of his death (September 28) and of the centenary of his birth (October 17). Part II will be published tomorrow, Tuesday, August 21.

August, September and October are three months with important anniversaries connected to the life of Albino Luciani, namely, Pope John Paul I: recalled on August 26 is the 34th anniversary of his election to the papal throne; September 28, his sudden death; October 17, the one centenary of his birth.

Because of these anniversaries, and especially the centenary of his birth, innumerable Catholic initiatives are underway in Italy and abroad. Albino Luciani came from a very poor family of Canale d’Agordo, in the province of Belluno, at the foot of the Dolomites. As a child, and also as a priest and Bishop, he was always a timid and reserved person. No one could have imagined that he would become Pope at 66.

A Pontiff who had a disconcerting destiny: that of remaining on the Chair of St. Peter for only 33 days, and who died suddenly, in mysterious circumstances, which have given origin to voices, sayings and suppositions of a homicide perpetrated during the night by some eminent personality of the Vatican. A mystery about which books have been written and also made into films but that, although being a dramatic and dark story, never completely clarified, has not made people forget that Pope’s joyful smile, who has passed into history as “The Smiling Pope” and as a person of luminous holiness.

“The figure of John Paul I remains shrouded in mystery: when you are about to reach it, it flees,” writes Jean Guitton, the famous French Catholic philosopher. However, historian and essayist Marco Roncalli, author of a powerful biography of Albino Luciani, the first complete critical biography of the “thirty-three day Pope” doesn’t agree with this judgment.

“The mystery of Pope Luciani’s disappearance has polarized in a morbid way and for a long time, the attention of scholars and of the media, impeding serene, ample and objective research. However, by now that mystery has lost its sinister claim. Now, finally, attention can be concentrated on the ‘true and concrete’ life of Albino Luciani and the personality surfaces of a great and genuine Christian, whose faith was the spirit that always justified all his actions,” affirms Roncalli. Fifty-three years old, from Bergamo, great-nephew of Pope John XXIII (to whom in 2006 he dedicated an 800-page volume), Marco Roncalli is one of the great experts of the history of the contemporary Church. Gifted with a profound and vast culture, he has been affirmed as a researcher of extraordinary worth and, especially, an illumined and wise interpreter of the documents he gathers. He has dedicated five years of travel to John PauI I’s biography, of interminable days spent in libraries, periodical libraries, and conversations with individuals who knew Luciani well, who worked with him. However, the most important and unpublished things he found in the archives, including the inaccessible and secrete ones that, thanks to his reputation as scholar, were opened for him. Thus he took home a mountain of very precious material, in which he found a 750-page volume, published by Saint Paul Publishers, which is full of news, events, surprising and unpublished information, which show that he who good-naturedly is called the ‘Smiling Pope,’ was of a strong, granitic personality, faithful servant of the Church, hard and unmovable defender of principles, but tender and affectionate with people, especially with the less fortunate. A totally evangelical ecclesiastic, whose course of Beatification is justly underway.

We asked Marco Roncalli to talk to us of Pope Luciani, and especially to tell us the new and unpublished things he found over these five years of research.

“When I began to work on this project, I found myself before a singular fact: a Pope that had reigned only 33 days, a very brief time to have been able to do important things, but who also left in believers an extraordinary fascination. His activity as Pontiff didn’t justify that fascination, so it was necessary to find the cause elsewhere, namely, in Albino Luciani’s life before his election as Pontiff.

“A difficult task, because the ample literature that flowered on him after his death, had to do especially with the mystery of his disappearance. In reality, Albino Luciani’s true life remained all to be discovered and studied. And, taking into account that he was always a timid type, reserved, jealous of his privacy, I had to face a work of exhausting research. However, I had the good fortune and joy to discover a man of incredible spiritual depth.”

Who were Albino Luciani’s Parents?  

Marco Roncalli: Albino was the first-born of Giovanni Luciani and Bortola Tancon, a very poor couple and much tested by life, Giovanni, 40, a widower, had had five children from his first marriage: three boys who died when small, and two deaf-dumb girls entrusted to relatives. At 11 he emigrated for work and was in various countries of Europe and also in America. The difficulties and sufferings had hardened his heart: he militated in the Socialist Party and had forgotten the faith of his fathers.

Bortola, 31, had also spent part of her life far from home to work. She met Giovanni in Venice, where she worked as a waitress, and they married in 1911. Bortola was very believing, practicing and pious and, with her kindness, she succeeded in having her husband return to religious practice.

Why did they give their first-born the unheard-of name of Albino?  

Marco Roncalli: Giovanni had given that name also to three boys he had from his first marriage, who died immediately after birth, because Albino was the name of one of his emigration companions, who died young in a construction site accident. That name reminded him of the terrible sacrifices he had faced going around the world. After Albino, the couple had three more children, but only two survived.

What is known of Albino Luciani as a child?

 Marco Roncalli: From his infancy he had to face difficult life situations, which left profound signs on his spirit. He grew up, practically, without a father. Already in 1913, when Albino was a year old, his father was in Argentina. He returned for the 1915-1918 war, and then left again. It was the mother who raised and educated her son and transmitted the Christian values to him. “My mother was my first catechism teacher,” recalled Luciani.

The war years were particularly hard in that area of Veneto. Edward, Albino’s brother, recalled: “there were only herbs and roots of plants to boil . . . every now and then a piece of bread made of bran and sawdust from the trees . . . “Albino, of slender build, carried all his life the consequences of those years of poverty. He himself recounted how he was in a sanatorium, recovering eight times in hospital, and of having undergone four surgical interventions.

What type of school did he attend?

 Marco Roncalli: Elementary school in his birthplace and then he entered the Seminary. He was good in school. He liked to read and the parish priest and other priests helped him, loaning books to him. He had great facility in writing. There is a prayer he wrote in his fourth year of elementary school, which is important because it reveals his clear and concrete style, which would then characterize his style as an adult. “Lord, you who know everything and can do everything. Help me to live. I’m still a boy, I have no studies, I am poor, but I want to know You. Now I don’t really know who You are and I don’t know if I love You. I like the Our Father; I like the Hail Mary very much; I pray for my dead and for my dear ones. Help me to understand. I am your Albino. Amen.”

When did he decide to become a priest?

Marco Roncalli: His vocation flowered spontaneously, when he was still a child. It seemed that he wanted to become a Franciscan friar or a Jesuit. However, his parish priest advised the Seminary, where he could study and evaluate at a more mature age, if he would continue for the priesthood. He entered the Feltre Seminary at 11. As Bishop, he wrote: “When we are called among men, the call is very clear . . . When God calls, the thing is different, <there is> nothing written or strong or very evident: a slight whisper, a low voice, a ‘pianissimo that touches the soul.”

Basically, he always lived far from the real world.

 Marco Roncalli: But always attentive to what was happening in the real world. In the Seminary also, political, religious and cultural ideas came through professors, which were being debated in those years. Albino Luciani was a sponge. He listened, thought and elaborated and, above all, he read, not only books of a religious character, but especially literature books, which were not always available in the Seminary and were not even well regarded. If he had some money, he bought them, ordering them directly from the publisher; otherwise he would borrow them. Especially during his high school years, he read Moliere, Verne, Walter Scott, Mark Twain, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Camus, Silone, Peguy, Bernanos, Claudel, Pascal, Erasmus, Montaigne, Chesterton, Goethe, Petrarch, Eliot, Trilussa, Goldoni, Papini, Freud, Darwin, Haine, Nietzsche, Marx, Lenin, etc. During the summer months, he dedicated himself to putting the old parish library of his country in order, whose books were crowded in the old parish library of his country in the attic of the Rectory. He compiled the cards of more than 1200 volumes, indicating for each one the author, the title, the place and date of publication, followed by a brief synthesis of the content and a synthetic judgment, making a hand-written small volume of 100 pages that is still preserved.

So, he had an extraordinary education, also profane . . .

Marco Roncalli: Certainly. It’s difficult to hold that he was able to find all those books in the Seminary. However, in his unbridled passion for reading, he looked everywhere, and that unbridled passion caused him a dangerous interior crisis that put his vocation in serious danger. Saint Leopold Mandic, a Capuchin friar, who at a certain time heard Confessions in that Seminary, helped him to overcome that difficult moment. The advice of that Saint was providential for young Luciani and from then on, all his life he carried a photo of Father Leopold, in his wallet, next to that of his mother.

Young Luciani was not only interested in literature, but also in the cinema, in art, in journalism. He liked to write and even directed a small newspaper, demonstrating from then on, that quality of clarity, of synthesis, which then marked his books.

*Renzo Allegri is a journalist, writer and music critic. He studied Journalism at the “Higher School of Social Sciences” of the Catholic University. For 24 years he was special envoy and music critic of “Gente” and then Chief Editor for Culture and Shows of the weeklies “Noi” and “Chi.” For ten years he has been an established collaborator of “Hongaku No Tomo,” the prestigious Japanese music review.

To date he has published 53 books, all very successful, many of which have been published in French, German, English, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, Rumanian, Slovakian, Polish, Chinese and Russian. Among all, the book “The Fatima Pope” (Mondadori) has had extraordinary success.

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Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is Senior Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in 5 languages); Deborah is also NBC & MSNBC Vatican Analyst. She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, often from the Papal Flight (including for historic trips such as to Abu Dhabi and Japan & Thailand), and has also asked him questions on the return-flight press conference on behalf of the English-speaking press present. Lubov has done much TV & radio commentary, including for NBC, Sky, EWTN, BBC, Vatican Radio, AP, Reuters and more. She also has contributed to various books on the Pope and has written for various Catholic publications. For 'The Other Francis': http://www.gracewing.co.uk/page219.html or https://www.amazon.com/Other-Francis-Everything-They-about/dp/0852449348/

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