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VATICAN LETTER Aug-22-2008 (850 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi

John Paul I: The smiling pope who connected with everyday Catholics

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Thirty years ago Aug. 26, a conclave of 111 cardinals elected Italian Cardinal Albino Luciani as Pope John Paul I, the "smiling pope" who served only 34 days before dying of a heart attack.

It was one of the briefest pontificates, but it left a lasting impression. Many inside and outside the Vatican felt that a man of extraordinary humility and goodness had passed their way -- like a meteor that lights up the sky and quickly disappears, as one cardinal put it.

Only five cardinals who voted in that conclave are still alive. Among them is Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict XVI -- who at the time was one of the youngest cardinal-electors.

Along with the rest of the College of Cardinals, he watched as Pope John Paul immediately introduced a new style of papacy, more simple and less formal than many at the Vatican were used to.

His first speech to the world, delivered from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, was personal and direct, like a heart-to-heart talk.

He asked Catholics to "have mercy on the poor new pope who never really expected to rise to this post." He joked about having to pick up the Vatican's thick yearbook, the Annuario Pontificio, to study how the Roman Curia worked.

The new pope made no secret of the fact that he sometimes felt a bit intimidated by the church structure he was supposed to be running. On the other hand, in his public events he made connections with everyday Catholics, adopting a storytelling form of preaching and bringing a parish atmosphere to the Vatican.

He explained the concept of free will with a metaphor about prudent car maintenance. He spoke sympathetically about those who can't bring themselves to believe in God. He once jokingly compared marriage to a gilded bird cage: "Those on the outside are dying to get in, while those on the inside are dying to get out."

In one of his most quoted remarks, he said God "is a father, but even more, a mother" in the way he loves humanity. He backed up his statement by quoting the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: "Could a mother forget her child? But even if that were to happen, God will never forget his people."

Most church commentators have looked back on this abbreviated pontificate as a time of grace and joy. Other analysts, however, have characterized Pope John Paul as out of his depth, and as a man who was overwhelmed by the burdens of his new position.

How does Pope Benedict see it?

"Personally, I am totally convinced that he was a saint, because of his great goodness, simplicity, humanity and courage," then-Cardinal Ratzinger said in an interview with the magazine 30 Giorni in 2003.

Cardinal Ratzinger said he felt very happy after their two-day conclave elected Cardinal Luciani. He said it seemed that "to have as pastor of the universal church a man of such goodness and luminous faith was (a) guarantee that everything was going well."

In 2004, Cardinal Ratzinger traveled to the province of Belluno, the native land of Pope John Paul, and said he was praying for his beatification.

He said of the late pope: "Speaking with him, one perceived that he was an essential man. He concentrated on the simple but was in no way simplistic."

Indeed, even as the possible beatification of Pope John Paul II has attracted much of the church's attention in recent years, Pope John Paul I's sainthood cause slowly has been working through the system.

The vice postulator of the cause, Msgr. Giorgio Lise, told Catholic News Service that the diocesan phase of the documentation recently has been given formal acceptance by the Congregation for Saints' Causes.

Meanwhile, the local approval of a miracle attributed to the intercession of Pope John Paul I -- the healing of a malignant lymphoma -- is expected to be completed in September.

But among those promoting the cause of "Papa Luciani," there seems to be no rush to sainthood.

"The (Vatican) congregation has to do its work, and of course that takes much time," Msgr. Lise said. Beatification can occur only after the Vatican declares the "heroic virtues" of a candidate and completes its own study confirming a miracle through the intercession of the prospective saint.

The death of Pope John Paul Sept. 28, 1978, was a shock for the church and for the cardinals who elected him.

Cardinal Ratzinger, in the 2003 interview, said it came as a real blow. At first, he said, it left him feeling rather depressed, "as if providence would say 'no' to our choice."

He later came to see, however, that this brief pontificate "was not an error" but instead had a real meaning in the history of the church.

"It was not only the testimony of his goodness and joyous faith. His unexpected death also opened the doors to an unexpected choice: that of a pope who was not Italian," he said.


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