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Pope John Paul I Beatified by Pope Francis by Hélène de Lauzun

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Pope John Paul I Beatified by Pope Francis

Pope Francis chose on Sunday, September 4th, to beatify one of his predecessors in the chair of St. Peter, Pope John Paul I, forty-three years after his death. A Mass of thanksgiving is to be celebrated on Sunday, September 11th, in his home village in northern Italy, Canale d’Agordo.

There is a special link between the beatification of John Paul I and Pope Francis, as the miracle that enabled the beatification stage to be validated concerns an 11-year-old girl from Buenos Aires, Argentina, whose unexplained recovery from death came about when a local priest asked for John Paul I’s intercession.

In many ways, John Paul I’s pontificate was an unusual one. Born into a very modest family in 1912 as Albino Luciani, he was elevated to the rank of patriarch of Venice before being chosen as pope in 1965, to succeed Pope Paul VI. His humble and warm personality quickly won hearts: a rare occurrence, he was elected by his fellow cardinals on the first day of the conclave. Surprised to be named the head of the Catholic Church, he improvised his name as Pope in an instant, combining the two names of his predecessors: John, for John XXIII, and Paul, for Paul VI. He was the last Italian pope in a long series over centuries in which Italians dominated the papacy.

His pontificate lasted only thirty-three days, making him the second shortest pontificate in the history of the Church. (The record in this respect belongs to Pope Celestine II who, in 1124, chose to abdicate on the very day of his election.) John Paul I’s death brought a promising pontificate to a premature end, with a cause still unclear. According to various accounts, he died of a heart attack, but no autopsy has been performed to confirm this hypothesis. The sudden and unexplained death has fuelled many theories about the real causes of his demise: for some, John Paul I was eliminated because he had shown his concern to put the Vatican’s finances in order, much to the displeasure of the mafia, which had placed its men in the Vatican bank. This hypothesis is the basis for the third part of Francis Ford Coppola’s cult film, The Godfather, which features John Paul I as an important character.

Pope John Paul I was known as the “smiling pope”—il papa del sorriso. Pope Francis concluded the beatification Mass by encouraging the faithful to pray to Blessed John Paul I for getting “the smile of the soul.” He was a man of great kindness and generosity who left such an impression on Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyła that he chose to follow in his footsteps by calling himself John Paul II when he was elected Pope after him.

Simple in manner and approach, Pope John Paul I, in the aftermath of Vatican II, chose to abandon certain elements of pontifical decorum. On the day of his enthronement, he refused to wear the tiara and instead wore a simple mitre. On the same day, he did not use the sedia gestatoria either, and subsequently reserved it for his public audiences only, preparing for its definitive abandonment by John Paul II.

Blessed John Paul I joins the now almost unbroken cohort of holy and blessed popes since the 19th century, after Blessed Pius IX, St Pius X, Venerable Pius XII, St John XXIII and St Paul VI. His feast day will now be celebrated on August 26th—the date of his papal election.

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).