Last 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 I was published Friday:
ROME, AUGUST 21, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of Part II of the interview with Marco Roncalli, author of the first, complete, critical biography of John Paul I.
By Renzo Allegri
And after the Seminary?
Marco Roncalli: He was ordained priest at 23. He worked for two years in the parish as assistant to the parish priest, carrying out “that small apostolate among the people that I liked so much.” And then he returned to the Seminary as teacher and Deputy Director. He spent another ten years in the Seminary, from 1937 to 1947. They were the years of World War II — difficult, tragic years, especially in Italy. He lived them intensely, involved in activities also outside the Seminary. In those years, he also succeeded in obtaining a degree summa cum laude in Theology from the Gregorian in Rome. However, he studied especially the events that were happening in the world, the life of men who were outside the Seminary, for whom he was preparing spiritual guidelines for the future.
Then, in 1947, the stage for action arrived, in a difficult moment for his health as, precisely at that time, he had serious problems and recovered in a sanatorium. However, the esteem of his Superiors was great and he was appointed Pro-Vicar of the diocese, then Vicar General and, in 1958, Bishop of Vittorio Veneto. He took, as the motto of his episcopal coat of arms, the word Humilitas, explaining: “I am pure and poor dust; on this dust the Lord has written the episcopal dignity of the illustrious diocese of Vittorio Veneto.” He never had great consideration of himself. He wrote: ”Some Bishops are like eagles, who fly with magisterial documents to a high level; I belong to the category of the poor wrens that, squeak in the last branch of the ecclesial tree.”
Vatican Council II began in 1962. Luciani was already a Bishop. How do you see him?
Marco Roncalli: With very great enthusiasm, but in hiddenness. His direct interventions aren’t known, but he was always present in all the sessions. He looked at that event with wonder. He spoke of it expressing himself in sports language, comparing it to an “extraordinary” game where more than 2000 Bishops played and the Pope was the arbiter. However, that event had an enormous significance for him. He wrote: “The Council has obliged me to become a student again and to be converted also mentally.” After the Council, his pastoral action had a surge of new, strong initiatives, which, in fact, many judged sometimes as revolutionary.
In what sense?
Marco Roncalli: They were years of changes, of progress also economic, and many new problems appeared in the life of Christians. Luciani showed himself a true pastor, who refused to be boxed in the usual stereotypes of “conservative” or “progressive.” Firm, regarding doctrine and principles, but full of understanding for human fragility, he was close to families’ real problems. One of the problems most taken for granted in those years, and which still is today, concerns birth control. Contraception was and is prohibited by the Church. However, many are the believing couples that, that already having children and, for various reasons, even serious ones, can’t have others, take recourse to contraception, living in a state of sin. Luciani suffered because of this situation. In various discussions he expressed words that showed his prudent but precise openness. He theorized and hoped for an evolution of Catholic doctrine on this problem. Then, however, Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vita came out, which confirmed the condemnation of contraception and he conformed himself to it. He was an innovator, but always ready to obey the Church.
He was also open to the problem of “de facto couples.” He wrote: “Once the legitimate family is protected and a place of honour accorded to it, will it not be possible to recognize, with all the cautions of the case, some ‘civil effect” to ‘de facto unions’?
Growing already then in our country was the presence of migrants belonging to various religions. And he looked at those persons also with the heart of a father. He wrote: “Some Bishops were scared: but then, will Buddhists come tomorrow and engage in their propaganda? . . . Or there are 4,000 Muslims in Rome: do they have the right to build a mosque? There is nothing to say; they must be left to do it.”
He was understanding, available, open but also immobile in regard to doctrinal rigour and discipline; he always confirmed the irreconcilability between Christianity and Marxism. He condemned the abuses of all those that risked making the Council become “a weapon to disobey, a pretext to legitimize all the ‘weird things’ that pass through the head.” He was always hard on the Catholic movements of dissent. In Venice, as Cardinal, when the University students of FUCI arrayed themselves for the ‘no’ to the abrogation of the divorce law, he dissolved the Association. He prohibited strictly the small groups united by pre-Conciliar nostalgia to celebrate Mass in Latin. He affirmed: “we don’t exact — situated on the right ––that the Church preserve today, in a profoundly changed world, such and such attitudes and rites, which were right in Medieval times . . . we seek, vice versa, not to be — situated on the left — too audacious and not compromise the unity of the faith and of the Church.”
If Luciani had had a long pontificate, in your opinion, what changes would he have made within the Church?
Marco Roncalli: During the 33 days of his pontificate he continued to behave in the most absolute simplicity, as he always did. When, immediately after the election, the Cardinals asked him what name he would like as Pope, he chose that of two Pontiffs that preceded him, to indicate that he wanted to place himself in the wake of continuity. To the ritual question, he answered: “I will be called Giampaolo.” However, the Cardinals made him note that that name, “Giampaolo” was of a too familiar type for a Pope, and so he agreed to change it to the more solemn “John Paul I.” His first words to the Cardinals were: “What have you done? May God forgive you!” In the various addresses of his 33-day pontificate he continued to recall the essential nature of the evangelical message, stressing poverty and the correct use of property. He had truly metabolized Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio, and he certainly settled somewhat the question of the Vatican riches, promoting a more solidary Church with the poor and greater communion and sharing at the top.
He was the first Pope to ask to be able to talk to the crowd, the first to appear at Saint Peter’s loggia, impeded by the then Master of Ceremonies Virgilio Noe. He refused the crowning, the tiara, as Paul VI did, and the gestatorial chair, on which he was obliged to sit sometimes in General Audiences. To speak with spontaneity, he put aside official texts, alarming realms of the Roman Curia and of diplomacy. To give lessons in humanity, he would call children to talk with him during audiences as in the times of Vittorio Veneto and of Venice. Those 33 days were enough to create an unforeseeable change of climate in the Church and, the banning of any form of rhetoric, to show with words and gestures, the beauty of Christianity. If he had had a long pontificate, he would certainly have left a strong and unmistakable sign.
What is your opinion on the mystery of Pope Luciani’s death?
Marco Roncalli: From the documents I’ve examined, I’m certain that the death happened for natural causes — one hundred per cent certain. There were, however, so many hypocrisies: the first to find the Pope dead in his bedroom was the Sister who brought him coffee, that is, a woman, something that seems unbecoming, so that balderdash began to be said, to adjust the truth, to emit muddled press releases, and a confusion was born that, together with the other details and inopportune statements, fuelled the theory of a plot and of poisoning.
*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.