by Father Mark Goldasich
The asterisk pope. I suspect that’s how most people remember him . . . if they do at all.
Sandwiched between a papacy that lasted 15 years before him and one that lasted 26 years after him, John Paul I’s papacy of merely 33 days is hardly a blip on the church’s radar.
Incredibly, I missed his whole pontificate. After finishing my first year of theology in June 1978 at the North American College in Rome, I spent the month of July exploring Europe. The rest of the summer — August and September — I attended an intensive language institute in Staufen im Breisgau, Germany.
Shortly after I’d arrived in Staufen, Pope Paul VI died. Naturally, I gobbled up all the news that followed, especially about the conclave. (Honestly, I longed to be back in Rome to witness the election of a new pope. I mean, it doesn’t happen all that often.)
Incredibly, after only 26 hours into the conclave, a new pope was elected on Aug. 26. Although I knew nothing about him, I was immediately captivated by his choice of a name and his gentle smile. He was the first pope to take a double name as a sign of his respect for his predecessors: Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI.
I was touched by his words of explanation for the name: “I have neither the ‘wisdom of the heart’ of Pope John, nor the preparation and culture of Pope Paul, but I am in their place. I must seek to serve the church. I hope that you will help me with your prayers.” I could hardly wait to return to Rome to get to know him better.
When the language institute ended, I spent a few days at the Jesuit residence in Munich to experience Oktoberfest. Another seminarian was coming in from Paris to meet me there. When he arrived the morning of Sept. 29, I was shaving in the communal bathroom of the Jesuits. He came in and said, “Did you hear the pope died?”
“Of course,” I said. “Even though I followed it all in German, I know Paul VI died!”
“No, no,” he said, “I’m talking about the new pope!”
At first, I thought he was kidding but his somber expression told me otherwise. We left for Rome the next day. I recall walking past the open casket of John Paul I in front of the main altar at St. Peter’s, with Swiss Guards on duty. I attended the funeral as well, held outside on an eerie, overcast day on Oct. 4. The weather, as well as some screeching birds that flew over during the Mass, seem to mirror the sorrow and grief of the crowd.
Over the years as I’ve learned about him, I’ve grown more attached to JP I:
We’re both alumni of the Gregorian University in Rome; he also wrote a regular column in his diocesan newspaper; and he loved a good story, seen especially in one of his books, “Illustrisimi,” where he penned fictional letters to folks like Mark Twain, Pinocchio, King David and even Jesus.
Justly, he’s remembered as “the smiling pope.” And he deserves this long overdue recognition. He was just named “Blessed” by Pope Francis on Sept. 4.
JP I embodied these words of Mother Teresa: “Let no one come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness — kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.”
Blessed John Paul I, smile upon us!
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